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.