Most Yalies do not, I imagine, spend much time contemplating whether men and women should be permitted to live in the same suites. Those who avail themselves of the liberty must support it; those who do not, care little that others do. But there is a portion of us, though not a very public one, who besides not living with members of the opposite sex, think it an outright impropriety to do so. There are good reasons for this, and a decent case that Yale should provide these students, a minority with a compelling interest, with special accommodations — including, perhaps, single-sex colleges.
Many of these students are religiously conservative (though some are not). This is not to say they would sooner vote for a muskrat than a Democrat. Rather, their self-constitutions and identities are informed by 1,000-year-old traditions believed to originate in the will of God.
The three most common religions at Yale — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — all link sex to marriage, defined as union of man and woman before God. Many religious communities separate the sexes for education during youth. Some restrict even nonsexual touching before marriage, and many retain a code of modest dress and behavior — explicit or not — for males and females.
Religious activity and experience, involving a struggle to locate oneself in the cosmos and behave according to that placement, is one way many people at Yale seek meaning. If less fraught activities — hooking up drunk, to name just one — are tolerated and pursued with the same intention, religious observance should be as well.
But perhaps the fervid secularist is not persuaded. Religion is unreasonable, he might object, and there’s no sense in cordoning living space for those suffering under its delusions.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the first biblical discussion of men and women — the story of the Garden of Eden — precedes any mention of a covenant, or any ongoing relationship between God and man the word “religion” evokes. That is, even the Bible sees prereligious differences between the sexes. And, indeed, the systems of religious law distinguishing the sexes can be supported by nonreligious arguments.
All people naturally desire their own preservation and continuity, achieved through union with a member of the opposite sex. Humans are conjugal animals. As Aristotle writes in the Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, “human beings form couples more naturally than they form cities, to the extent that the household is prior to the city, and more necessary.” The special friendship between men and women, which we call marriage, involves not just childbearing, but also the “benefits in their life. For the difference between them implies that their functions are divided, with different ones for the man and the woman.”
Much social science — not to mention everyday experience — confirms that differences exist. They manifest themselves sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Men and women behave differently around one another — anyone who’s ever walked into a room populated entirely by members of the other sex knows it to be an experience quite different from walking into a room populated by members of the same sex. Everyone tenses. Some sense, which not even the most progressive cultural mores can quash, is heightened when men and women encounter one another in any setting.
Many religions have rich theologies of the sexes going beyond what is observable and thinkable to anyone using only his reason. And these theologies can sound extreme. They have often been used to justify unpardonable oppression of women.
But while today’s culture treats men and women similarly, it denies the differences religious traditions sought to protect and beautify. And there are many believers, male and female, who find traditional mores to be more meaningful than a culture denying anything essential about manhood or womanhood. It is perfectly coherent to think that women should vote, work and have the right to divorce their husbands without thinking they are not different from men.
Traditional sexual mores have been questioned in recent years, though I imagine they will weather the challenge. But this is a university, and arguments should stand or fall by reason, not by convention. This includes arguments about personal practices. It’s time for a new discussion about human sex, accounting for the differences most cultures and religions — and each of us — seen between men and women. And it’s time that those with conservative mores are given a space to live in accordance with them — in halls of men or women who see their companionship with the opposite sex properly reserved to certain spheres of life, and not to others.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .