Clegg: Flawed logic against progress

Peter Johnston argues in his column that appeared on this page yesterday that optional gender-neutral housing today will lead to mandatory gender-neutral housing for freshmen tomorrow (“The logical extension of the first step,” March 26). This argument uses a logic that, when viewed in greater historical context, is terrifying.

Johnston argues that once gender-neutral housing becomes an option for non-freshmen, it will inevitably be argued that freshmen ought to be made to experience gender-neutral housing so that they can make informed decisions about how to choose housing in their later years. He claims that this argument will be bolstered by liberal appeals to sexual equality and diversity, and that mandatory gender-neutral housing for freshmen will become viewed as the logical next step in the feminist path toward social equality between men and women. He even offers the arguments for mid-twentieth century racial integration in support of this view.

But I suggest that Johnson either has a misunderstanding of what the logic of his argument entails, or that he is comfortable with a horrific level of individual sexual restriction. If we accept the logic of Johnston’s position, then we must admit that allowing women to attend Yale in the first place was the first step on this awful, inevitable path toward mandatory gender-neutral housing! After all, isn’t allowing women in the same classrooms as men just the beginning of a slippery slope that will lead toward complete gender neutrality?

Of course not. But if we accept Johnston’s argument that liberation today will lead to coercion tomorrow, then it becomes difficult to defend the sexual integration of Yale in the first place. Either Johnston does not recognize this, or he is comfortable saying that a co-educational campus is undesirable.

Let me now say that I am against mandatory gender-neutral housing for freshmen, as I believe most students are. I support optional gender-neutral housing for upperclassmen, however, because it will finally acknowledge the maturity of Yale students to determine with whom they wish to live. I can hold these two views because there are several highly questionable points in Johnston’s reasoning. Slippery slope arguments always demand a high level of scrutiny before they can reasonably be adopted, so let’s examine where his argument goes off track.

He claims that, in order to ensure that students make informed decisions about housing as upperclassmen, it will be argued that freshmen should be exposed to gender-neutral housing. But how would gender-neutral housing offer increased exposure to living situations for freshmen? It wouldn’t — it would simply make freshmen ignorant as to what separate-gender housing is like. Freshmen would thus be just as helpless, if not more so, to make informed decisions about how to live in later college years.

He further claims that appeals to sexual equality and diversity will strengthen the mandatory gender-neutral housing argument. Arguments in favor of racial integration took a similar path, so why wouldn’t the sexual integration argument do the same? The reason is that, in the period of our history in which racial integration took place, blacks were seen as inferior to whites in a host of different social, economic and even biological ways. Part of the reason the “separate but equal” doctrine regarding race was immoral is because blacks were regularly viewed as necessarily interior. Integration thus was extremely important in dispelling this myth.

But, though women still do face certain oppressive social obstacles, women are nowhere near as oppressed as blacks were during the civil rights era. It is extremely unlikely, then, that an argument claiming that separate-gender housing for freshmen is oppressive to women will gain traction.

I agree with Johnston that masculinity and femininity are real, and that they play an important role in our humanity. But I disagree that this first liberating step of providing housing options to upperclassmen will ultimately erode the natural distinction between the sexes. After all, women have attended Yale for decades. I hazard that we students are still aware of whether we’re male or female.

River Clegg is a sophomore in Davenport College.


  • Yale 08

    I wish Yale was still men-only.

    There are many more advantages to single-sex education.

    If Bryn Mawr and Wellesley can be female exclusive, why couldn't Yale stay all-male?

  • Anonymous

    "a horrific level of individual sexual restriction" - huh. You know, though this may escape us at a place so liberated as a college campus, some people actually don't think sex is an appropriate part of an undergraduate education. (I don't me we shouldn't teach sexual health, but the "Everyone does this and thinks its ok" mindset projected is a bit over-the-top and inconsiderate of those who believe and act otherwise.) We already have a sex-obsessed media, the ubiquitous bags of condoms, and the occasional (but always intrusive) sex-iling episode. In that sense, gender-neutral housing is not much of a step (forward? backward) but its potential for year-long issues is just too great to let undergrads jump blindly and joyfully into mixed groups on-campus (mind you, the option is available off-campus for those so inclined).

    I think the likely abuse of unrestricted gender-neutral housing would lead to too many problems for undergrads (starting off friends, ending up exes can happen in under a semester, mind you) and create too much liability for the university. While we may all hope that everyone would only select the gender-neutral housing option for good reasons, making it totally available (instead of something individuals with specific needs can request) could lead you to a situation in which people were sexually abused within their own rooms, unable to escape from their suitemate/abuser.

    That doesn't sound particularly liberating to me - sexually or otherwise. For my part, call me a prude, but I think we should restrict uncomfortable situations and more serious incidents of sexual predation as much as possible.

  • Anonymous

    Great piece! I love it when Johnston's bizarrely illogical arguments (a category that includes most arguments he advances) are taken apart like this.

  • Willoughby Chase

    Men and women share many activities and learning experiences together regardless of where they go to school. In the past, however, living together was reserved for marriage. The public sphere and the private sphere are subject to different social laws, which is why changing the social dynamic at Yale by making it co-ed does not change the dynamics of the student's private sphere. Gender-neutral housing is fundamentally changing the perception of what a healthy private sphere looks like by encouraging and legitimizing a radical dynamic (men and women living together before marriage). These days, the choice that men and women make to live together before marriage is made when they live completely independently (when they are exposed to the dangers of complete freedom that large urban areas provide) and was not legitimized by any institution until recently. This is why gender-neutral housing can lead down a slippery slope within the private sphere but a change in the public sphere (like making Yale Co-ed) does not.

    Also, Yale students have experienced what living in separate spaces from the opposite gender is like all their lives! It's called living at home. So clearly the only experience missing for freshman is gender-neutral housing.

    The feminist argument for forced gender-neutral housing is much stronger than Clegg thinks. If we truly are equal in every way, why should any distinctions be made in housing? Isn't that implying that their is some innate difference? And that would be unacceptable! Gender -neutral housing isn't simply a strategy to correct oppression, not having it legitimizes that oppression by affirming the myth that people's personalities are determined by and chained to their biological differences. While I disagree that there are not innate differences, I have heard many Yale feminists espouse such views. These views are dangerous and do in fact lead to radical changes in the private sphere that could destroy what little wholesome there is left in our culture.

  • Recent Alum

    If someone uses "terrifying" logic here, it is not Johnston.

  • To Willoughby Chase

    Three points regarding comment number four:

    1. Men and women living together before marriage is not a "radical dynamic," it's an incredibly mainstream one. Recent polls show that a vast majority of young people believe living together before marriage is not harmful, a majority views it as helpful (which it is), and today about half of people in their 20s and 30s do live together before getting married. It is your views that are out of touch, not those of the people who support optional gender-neutral housing.

    2. In what world does going from an exclusively male institution to a co-ed institution not "change the dynamics of the student's private sphere"?

    3. If you think that living at home is a close enough analogue to living in a college dorm room with other people your same gender, you must have had either a very wild childhood or a very tame college life.

    That is all.

  • Branford 10

    As someone who loves downhill skiing I know that when you start down a slippery slope you can still stop. I hate slippery slope arguments.

    The point of adopting gender neutral housing is so that we as adults are able to choose who we wish to live with without having traditional views about gender forced upon us. That doesn't mean that anyone should or will be forced to live with people of the opposite gender, just that there should be the choice.

    Peter Johnston's article was ridiculous and offensive as they often are and I'm glad that someone responded to it.
    And I'm mostly offended that Peter Johnston keeps talking about feminists as if he actually understands feminist beliefs at all. Let's all recall that this is the guy who said that women are too "pure" to be involved in the military and has said that women only have sex for the pleasure of selfish men. I just can't take his articles seriously.

    I personally would not have minded if I had been assigned to live with someone of the opposite gender my freshman year, but I can understand why others would. We can accept the equality of men and women without requiring that they live together. There are very simple reasons why this might be the case, like the fact that someone might be uncomfortable seeing a person of the opposite gender naked while they're changing their clothes. Feminists believe in gender equality, but they also believe in the importance of choice and personal autonomy. Therefore, forcing people to have living situations that they are uncomfortable with is not a very feminist argument in my opinion.

  • Hiero II

    Mr. Clegg's argument can be easily dispatched in a few simple points.

    1. Mr. Johnston is pointing out - as the comments on his article confirms - that many advocates of optional coed housing are also in favor of normalized (mandatory) coed housing. [I'm dropping the term gender-neutral because it's ridiculous]

    2. Although Mr. Clegg states "I hazard that we students are still aware of whether we’re male or female.", I know that the Yale Women's Center and the LGBT Coop would both disagree with this statement. That is to say, they're insane. Coed housing has never been about making the hypothetical transgender students at Yale safe from the oppressive eyes of the wrong gender - it's always been about advancing an ideology deemed "progressive" at the expense of all others.

    3. Mr. Clegg never actually proves that there's a good reason to allow upper-classmen to mix genders but NOT foist it upon freshmen. He merely says that it's all the same anyways and leaves it at that. That's Mr. Johnston's excellent point - that all the arguments against single-sex housing for upper-classmen (and upper-classwomen and upper-classwomyn and upper-classits) can also be logically extended to assail single-sex housing for freshmen (and freshwomen/womyn/its)

  • Yale 10

    Meredith W.,

    How would coed suites be different that coed floors with shared bathrooms (especially in terms of the prospect of abuse) given that Yale is almost certain to provde individual locks on each single/double room within suites?

    About that, Yale, didn't you promise us individual locks over last summer? Regardless of gender neutral housing, they'd be nice to have for, you know, security …

    It's patently absurd we don't have locks on our personal rooms, but Yale feels the need to isolate the campus from New Haven by requiring swipes during daylight hours.

  • River Clegg

    I will not repeat my argument here, but I have one wake-up call for Hiero II. Your classification of Yale's transgender students as "hypothetical" is both insulting to those very real transgender students and revealing of your own sheltered ignorance. This is not just a debate about abstract notions of gender relations--it's about the ability of real people to make real decisions about how they wish to live in college.

    Also, as for your third point, I never say "it's all the same" regarding upperclassman as opposed to freshman housing. All I set out to do is point out the transparent implausibility of Johnston's argument that liberation must logically lead to coercion.

  • torn

    River Clegg @10, I'm torn. On the one hand I want to say PLEASE DON'T FEED THE RIDICULOUS TROLLS like "Hiero II" and "Recent Alum" who are constantly appending asinine, stupid arguments to many YDN pages. There are other, more serious comments that make conservative arguments -- respond to them instead.

    But on the other hand, your whole column was a response to a fairly stupid argument; comments like the one @ 8 are only a bit worse. And I suppose there must be a number of people at Yale who agree with such comments. I just don't think you are going to get anywhere convincing those people. People like "Hiero II" are just perversely determined to find arguments, no matter how disconnected from reality or logic, to support their discomfort with men and women living together who aren't in a sexual relationship (and their more extreme discomfort with anyone transgendered, no matter who they live with).

    On balance, I'd say don't feed the trolls! Comments like the one @ 8 on this thread are essentially self-refuting.

  • Hiero II

    Dear Mr. Clegg,

    I would like to know how exactly the classification of transgender students as hypothetical is insulting. I do not know of any openly transgender students at Yale - therefore their existence on this campus is hypothetical.

  • Edna Krabappel

    @#11- There is something to be said for your philosophy of not feeding the trolls. There are some battles that are just to stupid to be fought. However, the goal in the end is, however we can, to help the University officials understand that all heretofore presented arguments against gender-neutral housing are fatuous. Trolls will be trolls, and we can let them keep their trollish minds. But we also need to make sure that no one is listening to them.

    @Hiero II- If a tree falls in a forest and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound?

    What do you expect, a college-wide e-mail listing all the transgender students? They exist. Give it up. And maybe look inward for the reason why you personally don't know of any.

  • Hiero II

    Dear "torn",

    Calling someone a troll is the definition of an ad-hom attack. Debate my arguments or "tear" yourself away from the YDN page altogether.

    Hiero II

  • This is exactly the problem

    To say that "all heretofore presented arguments against gender-neutral housing are fatuous" is a woeful oversimplification of the problem we're discussing.

    Only "progressives" can so ironically seek to shut up their opponents.

  • Edna Krabappel

    Many people have written, in this newspaper, op-ed columns in favor of gender-neutral housing. Only one has made an argument against it, and it was easily rebutted. If someone can come up with a sound and thoughtful argument against gender-neutral housing, he should write it up and print it, not just troll it around in the comments.

    And by the way, my comment wasn't ironic. That's not how you use that word.

  • Anonymous

    In response to Yale 10, who wrote: "How would coed suites be different that coed floors with shared bathrooms (especially in terms of the prospect of abuse) given that Yale is almost certain to provide individual locks on each single/double room within suites?"

    First, I don't think everyone who currently has a co-ed bathroom is contented with that situation for the reason alluded to above that they see/are seen by people of the opposite sex nearly naked. I've heard this from male friends, and I for one have very much appreciated having an all-girl bathroom all four years at Yale (the times men have been passing outside the restroom while I'm in transit/in a towel have been insignificant for the most part, but with some interactions with drunk men that have made me quite uncomfortable).

    So my first point is that co-ed bathrooms are not ideal (tolerable and tricky to avoid once a part of school policy, yes, but not a positive good). My second point is that the bathroom and the dormroom are very different places. I hope you don't take me as glib in pointing out that one major difference between co-ed bathrooms and dormrooms is that I don't sleep in my bathroom. More seriously, borrowing from what was said above, the bathroom is much more in the realm of the public sphere than the dormroom, the public sphere and the private sphere are very different places psychologically, and - I believe everyone would agree - these realms should stay distinct. By this I mean that, while it may be irksome running into a member of the opposite sex in my bathroom while I'm less than decent, it's another manner entirely having a man in my room whom I don't want there. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy male company and understand that lots of couples share beds - but at the end of the day (or the relationship) your room MUST be a safe place you can call your own, a shelter where you do not need to be on guard against unwanted sexual attention.

    I acknowledge your point that locks on the individual rooms act as a safety measure in bad situations, but I still insist that the common room is a part of a uniquely private domain in which people should feel safe. Moreover, if people don't feel safe where they live sexually (even if they started out getting along just fine as couples or friends), a bad living situation could taint your life from behind a locked door. I don't know about you, but I for one have never felt the need to lock my door to keep my suitemates away and cannot imagine the psychological insecurity - regardless of physical security - such a living situation would result in if the issue involved were not just theft or nuisance but potential rape. This is a strong word to bring out in this discussion, but one whose usage I believe the seriousness of the issues at play merits. I thank you for your questions, Yale '10, and hope this response has clarified my position on the issue.

    In response to Edna Krabappel (really?): It is a rhetorical trick universally known that a person who summarizes prior arguments as "easily rebutted" does not have to do the hard work of actually rebutting them. Since your job as a proponent of co-ed housing (a policy change) is to make the case for it as a necessity for some or a positive good for all, please tell us: (1) why the current system does not appropriately accommodate transgender students and (2) how universally allowing upperclassmen mixed housing would be good for Yale, addressing my still very pressing concerns that well-intentioned students who opt-in to such co-ed housing could end up in personally devastating situations of sexual assault, facing logistical obstacles that make moving out difficult and potentially blaming the university for the unforeseen trauma (I'm not talking so much about transgender students here as couples who think it'd be fun to live together or mixed groups of friends who might end up involved).

    My impression is that the major argument in favor of allowing co-ed housing is that people should be able to do what they want and accept the responsibilities; that's fine enough for off-campus life where people DO accept full responsibility for their lives and could potentially just move to another place/stop paying rent should problems occur, but on-campus the university accepts a certain level of oversight that makes our administrators and policy-makers responsible in part for the living situations they foster. Unless someone can convince me that accommodation of transgendered individuals is currently inadequate (I'd be more moved by said individuals speaking for problems they've encountered with housing policy as it stands than others claiming a lack of "diversity" - a concept so diverse in meaning as to be incomprehensible in application - on their behalf), unless someone can make a real case that there's something broken, I cannot merrily grab hands with the "gender-neutral" enthusiasts and cheer something being fixed. Instead, I see no advantage, and quite a bit of risk, involved in enacting the current proposition. Allowing co-ed housing policies could result in serious abuse, and I sincerely believe that sexual involvement should not become an area of potential conflict within our dormroom homes.

  • Just one argument

    Hi. There are many arguments floating around here. This comment is just focused on one that the long comment @17 brings up once again:

    Can we please drop the ridiculous canard about gender-neutral housing causing sexual assault?

    Let's try to be reality-based here. There are problems of sexual assault on all college campuses. It is a very serious problem.

    There is absolutely ZERO evidence that schools offering gender-neutral housing (i.e. all the Ivies except Yale and Princeton) have higher rates of sexual assault than schools enforcing strict gender segregation. Nor is there any evidence that Yalies living off campus (who routinely live in mixed gender groups) have higher rates of sexual assault than Yalies living on campus. The lack of evidence on these points should not be a surprise. Sexual assaults can occur whether or not the parties share a dorm room or suite. The mechanism by which some proponents of segregated housing believe this helps lower the rate of sexual assault is mysterious and always unspecified. It is especially mysterious because in practice, schools that offer gender-neutral housing generally find that the vast majority of men and women who wish to live together are NOT romantically or sexually involved, but are just friends who want to share a suite. Very close friends with whom one is NOT romantically involved, whom one trusts enough to want to live with them, seem exceptionally unlikely to be the ones who commit sexual assault.

    Okay, that's all. I just find it so annoying that people keep trotting out this sexual assault argument as though there were some evidence for it.

    I'd like to remind everyone that gender-neutral housing is not some wacko idea that has never been tried. It is available as a choice for students in at least some, and sometimes all, dorms in EVERY IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL except Yale and some other one that doesn't matter.

  • Lol

    When we normally talk about sexual assault rates, Yalies are quick to announce that they're an unknowable statistic because they're under-reported and not-reported. Suddenly when they want, these same Yalies come back and start citing studies involving sexual assault rates.

  • Anonymous

    On the other hand, the conservative crowd tends to scoff at the idea that sexual assault is a problem in need of continued discussion, and yet they cling to it as a reason not to allow gender-neutral housing.

    At any rate, I have long suspected that allowing gender-neutral housing would reduce rates of sexual assault. Most sexual assault on college campuses is the result of the hook-up culture that makes people think of their partners as conquests. But living with members of the opposite sex would help people see them as peers, as people rather than statistics. It would follow that such a newfound atmosphere of respect would lessen the danger of assault.

    I can't back this up, but it has been a suspicion of mine that people who claim that gender-neutral housing would lead to greater instance of sexual assault also believe that sexual assault is the result of the aggressor's insatiable sexual appetite. But most people at least occasionally feel lust or desire for sex, and relatively few people commit sexual assault. A key ingredient of sexual assault is a lack of respect for the autonomy of the victim, essentially a lack of recognition of the victim's personhood, a propensity to objectify one's sexual partners. What better way to convince someone of another's personhood than to have them live together?

    So yes, I am one of those who believes that sexual assault is a critical problem on college campuses, a problem that is difficult to alleviate due to under-reporting. But I believe that gender-neutral housing would help, rather than exacerbate that problem.

  • lollerskates


  • Y11

    I disagree with Mr. Johnston's slippery slope logic. Sure, it COULD happen. But I doubt it.

    However, let this column and the ensuing comments stand as proof twenty years down the road if it does, in which case Mr. Johnston should be allowed to treat myself, Mr. Clegg and the rest of us with a swift kick to the balls.


    "But living with members of the opposite sex would help people see them as peers, as people rather than statistics."

    Why in the world is this true? Because you living in a YWC-sponsored happy land of happiness? This plays into the whole "people are perfect - they're just uneducated" nonsense that the ivory tower and ivy league fosters. People suck. They are closer to biologically-driven animals than to saints and angels. Sexual assault is committed out of lust. Objectification is a manifestation of lust, since lust flattens a person into a single dimension. Objectification does not precede from lust, it follows from it. Objectification is the complex psychological phenomenon, lust is the animal instinct.

    Also, a key ingredient of sexual assaults is PROPER MEANS BY WHICH TO DO SO. Coed suites provide the perfect means.

  • Anonymous

    To #23-

    It seems to me that you are appropriating arguments where it suits your purposes. Organizations, like the Women's Center, when they try to open discussion about the prevalence of sexual assault, particularly when they present the statistic that only 5% of rapists are ever convicted due to under-reporting of the crime, come under fire from conservatives and men's advocacy groups who flaunt the acquittal of the Duke boys and allege that nearly half of rape accusations are false. But in your comment you argue that everyone should be treated as a potential rapist. Which side are you actually on?

    Moreover, I'd like you to explain the logic behind proclaiming sexual assault a simple act of lust. There was a case about ten years ago in which two male college students followed another female college student home from a party, forced their way into her dorm room, barred the door and unplugged the phone, and proceeded to perform humiliating sexualized acts on her including scrubbing her genitals with an abrasive exfoliating face-wash. Simple sexual desire is not what compels people to do things like this. Sexual desire is the reason why people flirt, why people chat with attractive strangers they see across the room, ask each other out to coffee, all the normal, social human dating/mating rituals. You don't harass another person, you don't mutilate another's genitals out of lust. That comes from a different place. And no, humans aren't saints, but studies do show that seeing others in pain triggers responses in the parts of the brain that respond to feeling pain--in other words, people will feel some form of the emotions involved with feeling pain without feeling the pain itself. People are biologically wired to feel empathy, which deters people from deliberately causing suffering.

    The suggestion that Yale students are likely to assault one another simply because they are able to feel lust is misguided and insulting, the suggestion that people would do this to their roommates even more so. End this nonsense, please.

  • Stop and think

    Does it not seem hypocritical that while gender-neutral housing advocates claim to be sensitive of the LGBTQ community, these same advocates are completely disregarding the feelings of the more socially conservative group?

    I also seem to see a lot of gender neutral advocates off-handedly dismissing objections as narrowminded and ignorant.

    Personally, I don't care either way how it goes, but I do have a problem with people being self-righteous.

    I remember in a past article, Emily something posted some valid concerns, and people made ad hom attacks and called her narrowminded.

    While some people feel uncomfortable living with the same sex, others feel uncomfortable living with the opposite sex. And there are a lot of housing draw problems associated with gender neutral housing (even if it is an opt-in program.)

  • Anonymous


    The off-handed dismissal is coming from both sides, as are the ad hom attacks. Just see comment #15, particularly the part which reads, "Only "progressives" can so ironically seek to shut up their opponents." The definition of an ad hominem attack is to respond to an argument not by rebutting it, but by attacking or mocking the beliefs of the person who made it.

    On the other hand, if someone is being narrow-minded, why is it wrong to say so? Just go look at all the comments that suggest that transgendered students don't exist. It's completely unfounded (there are trans students here), but for some reason it ALWAYS comes up. If that's not narrow-minded, I don't know what is.

    A lot of other opponents insist on basing their arguments on the belief that there is one certain way in which men and women should relate to each other, despite the fact that the proponents generally don't buy into that belief because they hold that such beliefs are harmful. It doesn't seem to matter to the opponents that foisting the beliefs of a few on many is fundamentally contrary to the tenets of a free society. I don't think anyone would mind at all if the people who believe that integrated housing is wrong continued to live in single-sex suites. But I don't think it's incorrect to say that arguing to suppress the autonomy of others who envision different ideals of human relations is narrow-minded, for the simple reason that it really only boils down to, "Your friendship/your relationship/your love is immoral, but mine isn't". Which, by the way, is an excellent example of the self-righteousness you claim to dislike.

    I guess maybe the problem is that in the setting of online comments it is hard to distinguish between an ad hom attack and sincere criticism of a general way of thinking. But there is a difference, and in a debate like this, the latter really is unavoidable.

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