Notre Dame dorm system: encouraging gender discrimination?
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, September 21, 2017
We know this might shock you, but we have a gender problem here at Notre Dame. This problem presents itself most apparently through the dorm system. Though the dorms do have many positive attributes and we both still have a lot of love for and loyalty to our dorms, we must not sit complacently by when we see how harmful the dorm system can be. To the Notre Dame student population, it’s no secret that policy enforcement in the dorms is highly gendered. After conducting focus groups and engaging with sects of student leadership, this should be no secret to the administration either. To his credit, Fr. Jenkins vaguely alluded to this issue in the email that was sent out, writing, “Others were put off by a lack of consistency in procedures and rules across residence halls.” However, this discussion demands a much finer edge than simply pointing out inconsistencies amongst the dorms. Acknowledging a problem does not fix that problem, though it is the first step.
After three years studying gender and inequality in all its forms (race, class, ability, sexual orientation, etc.) at this university, we are not in the mood to mince words and avoid stepping on toes. The dorm system, as it currently stands, actively supports, allows and encourages gender discrimination to occur on this campus. Let us count (some of) the ways.
First are those inconsistent rules that Fr. Jenkins mentioned, though this is far from the only problem here. Students report this, everyone understands it, yet nothing is done. Social gatherings and underage alcohol consumption is widely tolerated in men’s residence halls and more harshly punished in women’s residence halls. Many readers will understand this. Many may not. Ask your friends who live in women’s dorms what their experience has been with authority, and listen to the answer. Yet, students regularly point to how evening out the rules and procedures regarding drinking and parties would result in an overall greater enforcement of the rules instead of an overall relaxing — but why does this have to be the case?
When the people who live in female residence halls are not allowed to make the same decisions as those who live in male residence halls, when they are held to different expectations on the basis of their assigned sex, structures of inequality and discrimination are reproduced daily. It also allows male residence halls to become the only on-campus sites of social gatherings and alcohol consumption, creating an environment in which male residents control setting and access to alcohol, and female residents are left powerless over these aspects of a night out. Female residents depend on their male friends in order to drink — leading to a lack of control over what they drink and what goes into that drink. We hope it is not difficult to see how this power differential increases the probability for sexual assault. It is correct to say that policy enforcement is inconsistent, but it is crucial that we note that this is an inconsistency based on gender.
Secondly, the dorm system makes Notre Dame a rigid, binary gender environment. By designating residence halls as male and female, the University excludes individuals who may not find a home within this binary. Gender non-conforming individuals find themselves imprisoned by the dorm system; they are forced to choose male or female, yes or no, in a way that is incredibly detrimental to their self image, mental health and development as a human. Those who run Notre Dame want us all to grow while we are here. Yet, they only want us to grow in a way that is acceptable to them (and honestly, the Catholic Church, but that’s a whole other issue).
In this way, the dorm system is fueled by heteronormativity. The male-female distinctions in the dorms are based on the assumed heterosexuality of the hall’s residents, so LGBTQ or gender non-binary folks are excluded on the basis of sexual orientation as well as gender identity. These people have the same right as other students to feel at home in their dorm — their home on campus — yet they have to live within a system that doesn’t even consider LGBTQ identities as a possibility. Further, though the institution of parietals has the purpose of building community, the common perception is that it is to prevent students from having sex — a perception that assumes that anyone a student would be having sex with would be from the opposite end of the gender binary. This assumption is naive and dangerous.
Thirdly, and finally, in regards to parietals, we want to ask you a question: why do we have to assign genders to our definition of community? Parietals are often defended by the argument that these rules build community. We’d like to hear the University’s operational definition of “community”; aren’t we all one Notre Dame community? Wouldn’t we have the same sense of belonging and loyalty to our dorm if, say, the person who lived below you had a different gender than you? Why are we confining our residence halls to exist only within the gender binary, and what do we really gain from that?
So, yeah, we think the dorms encourage gender discrimination. And that’s just one of the many reasons the new requirement to live on campus for six semesters is irresponsible, dangerous and utterly goofy.