Gender-neutral housing has been a hot issue in the last month, with protests on Cross Campus, official messages from Dean Mary Miller and a slew of columns on this page. Last week’s exchange between Peter Johnston ’09 (“The logical extension of the first step,” March 26) and River Clegg ’11 (“Flawed logic against progress,” March 27) illustrated most of the themes of the debate — feminism, the University’s perceived paternalism, the “coercive action of modern liberalism” — and yet it revealed how the debate so far has avoided the central issue: the question of the role sex is to play in the modern world.

The proponents of gender-neutral housing make a good case: no one thinks Yale objects to students hooking up in dorm rooms, and no one really believes that our construction of masculine and feminine identities depends on our isolation from the opposite sex. These positions have been rightly lampooned.

In fact, even those of us opposed to gender-neutral housing find that we can make no sensible argument against it. The truth is, we at Yale, like the modern world in general, have no idea what sex means. We’re familiar enough with sexual activity, and anyone who makes it to Yale probably has a good command of the physiological distinctions involved, but when it comes to sex itself — that strange division of our species — none of us knows what to say.

Most of us would agree that masculinity and femininity are important things, things we ought to preserve and cherish — even Clegg, a proponent of gender-neutral housing, mentioned the importance of “the distinction between the sexes.” But however many of us profess belief in such a distinction, none of us — not even those who value it the most highly — can say what it is.

In the modern world, there is nothing about which we would say to a woman, “That’s not appropriate for you; that’s for men,” or to a man, “Don’t do that; that’s women’s work.” Women wear traditionally male clothes, work at historically male jobs — and we all praise this as good and right, and as the overturning of great past injustices. And with the exception of childbearing, all female roles have been opened to men, with less and less stigma as time goes on.

If we value a so-called “distinction of the sexes,” how do we propose that they be kept distinct? Without reverting to the Aristotelian arguments of bygone centuries — arguments implying that biology is destiny, arguments that conservative and liberal alike see as misogynist and abhorrent — there really is no way to argue for such a distinction. We all understand ourselves as individuals determining our own paths by deliberation and free choice, who develop along the lines that seem best to us, stretching the limits of our abilities in our pursuits of happiness (and the presence or absence of a Y chromosome has no bearing on such things).

Johnston was right to point out that gender-neutral housing risks weakening “the recognition that we are a gendered species,” and Clegg, in what he intended as parody, suggested that “allowing women to attend Yale in the first place was the first step on this awful, inevitable path.” But the truth is, we were on that path much earlier.

Sometime between the founding of Yale in 1701 and the admission of women in 1969, we lost — if we ever had it — the conceptual framework needed to defend the idea of sex distinctions. Religious reasons and reasons of personal taste retain their strength — but according to the canons of public reason prevailing in our society, the distinctions of sex are merely accidental. Those of us — including Yale’s administration — who continue to distinguish persons based on sex must now confront the fact that we do so without a rational defense.

But if it is no longer legitimate to divide people by sex, Yale’s current rooming policy is, seen in the antiseptic light of public reason, as groundless as a policy of segregating students by hair color. Even if it is not unjust or oppressive, even if it is not unduly paternalist, a policy that cannot be defended must sooner or later disappear.

It may be a long time before Yale institutes gender-neutral housing. Despite its politics, this University is a fundamentally conservative institution, one that prefers to change incrementally if at all. Our residences may be segregated by sex for another hundred years — but apart from a reactionary appeal to tradition for its own sake, the University has no words to explain why.

Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore in Pierson College.