Thursday, February 21, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Sexuality and Student Trips

A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog daily and know there are many wise readers who help those seeking knowledge. I am in search!

Our Biology instructor is taking a class to the gulf coast for a week long Marine Biology trip. They will spend one night in a hotel both coming and going to the coast. While there, the students will be staying in apartment-style housing where everyone will have their own bed. However, at the hotel, that option is not available.

One of the male students is openly homosexual, which brings the issue of housing. The students are sharing equally in the cost of the trip, so asking/requesting that this particular student pay extra for a separate room is probably illegal, or at the very least unfair. We are not considering that as an option. The instructor has not had any discussions with students about their sleeping arrangements....yet.

What should we do?

Finally, an excuse to put some sex in this blog. Long overdue, I'd say.

My first thought is that more than one student to a bed – not to a room, but to a bed – strikes me as a bit much. This is true regardless of sexual orientation or anything else. But if the funding dictates that it be so, then that's that.

My next thought – and I'll admit here that my deanship is on the academic side of the house, as opposed to the student life side, so student housing isn't really my thing – is that I'm not entirely sure what the issue is. I assume you have openly gay students, both male and female, in your dorms now. (I also assume you have closeted ones, for that matter.) Some of them probably have straight roommates.

If the issue is fear of sex happening, two responses leap to mind. First, if only one student is gay, then the odds of gay sex happening strike me as pretty darn low. It takes two to tango.

Second, it's not like the straight kids aren't jumping each other when the chaperone's back is turned.

If the issue is the straight guys' feeling uncomfortable at being looked at, I'd suggest, as politely as possible, that they get over themselves. Generally speaking, we aren't nearly as hot as we like to think we are. Fear of being looked at is, in part, a sort of inverted vanity. And if they need to learn the difference between 'gay' and 'predatory,' then you have some teaching to do.

If the issue is the physical safety of the gay student, then the problem isn't with the gay student; it's with the straight kids who feel entitled to threaten him. Address your intervention accordingly.

If the issue is an 'ew' factor – not a sense of threat, per se, but just a visceral discomfort among the straight students – then I think you've got yourself a teachable moment. Besides, speaking as a straight guy, I find the 'ew' factor pretty minimal when the person is 'out.' It's the closeted ones that elicit discomfort, since they radiate discomfort themselves.

And if that still seems just a little too Northeastern liberal, then you could always split the cost of the extra room evenly among all the students, or pick it up out of your budget. (Some hotels will add a cot to a room for something like ten bucks a night, if you want a cheap way out.) But I'd be wary of “the gay kid gets his own room” as a solution, since it literally singles him out. Some smartass frat kid would start in with “oh, so that's what I have to do to get my own room,” and you're off to the races. Not a good precedent.

Or you could just pony up the cash to buy more rooms overall, and make the issue moot.

In any event, I'd reiterate expectations of behavior with every student before the trip, and have them sign something agreeing to some code of conduct. If someone just can't stomach the thought of going under those conditions, let him make that decision in advance.

Good luck.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

From reading the post, I too am not clear as to what the concern is.

However, if it is a matter of a students feeling uncomfortble sharing a bed with someone who is openly gay as opposed to just rooming with that person, is it possible to request twin beds in the hotel situation...?

Also, have any of the students who are going on the trip expressed a problem with this? Or are you, at this point, only anticipating it will be one?
I do this for group work, and it might help here, as well. I ask each student to (confidentially) list 1 - 3 classmates they would like to work (or in this case, share a bed) with, and also to list any they would under no circumstances want to be with. I tell students that I will not group them (make them share a bed with) anyone they put down as not being comfortable with. I also tell them that I will make every attempt to honor their requests for partners, especially if that person has also requested them.

This might be a subtle way of at least finding out if a) all the men really are uncomfortable with sharing a bed with this student, b) the students don't care, and have already got this sorted out, or c) all the men are uncomfortable, but some of the women would be perfectly happy to share a bed with this student (in which case you have something else entirely to think through).

Seems like something like this at least lets you know where you stand in the planning.

But having all students pay extra for a cot in all rooms is a good option, too.
I've got to say, I agree with DD that the bed-sharing situation would be uncomfortable at best whatever the sexuality of those involved unless all of the students who sleep together are very close friends.

As for the gay student... I feel like constructing this situation as one in which "the gay must be handled" is really distasteful (and homophobic, even if well-meaning). If there is no way around the bed-sharing situation for ALL students (it shouldn't just be the outcast gay who gets a cot - everybody should have that option if it's an option for one), I'd say this problem might be handled if you let students pick their partners for bed-sharing. I'm assuming the gay student has some friends going on the trip (as usually students choose to go on such trips at least in part because they've got friends doing them). Because, you know, gay students have friends just like straight students. If you let friends room together, I'd imagine that would alleviate any discomfort, right? And if they're adults (I'm assuming you're talking about college students here) the sex that they have - on a trip or in their daily lives, gay sex or straight sex or kinky sex or whatever kind of sex - isn't really your business.
Interesting. Do the students know each other well? Could you ask them to pick roommates for the hotel? Surely they all aren't close-minded and homophobic. And if they are, well, the gay kid's roommate should be the one, then, to go through the trouble of requesting or paying for the extra room.
Although I didn't need to deal with this as a debate coach, many of my colleagues did... the worst thing you can do is to isolate the gay student or do things that make it seem as if you are "dealing with" the gay student. Either you are assuming the gay student is a sex maniac who will hit on someone in their sleep OR you are assuming your class is full of people who are homophobic enough to get violent.

If the class is big enough, then the "list three people you want to room with, list three people you don't want to room with" might work... but, if the class is small, that just isn't possible.

If there will be several rooms for each gender, you can tell them that they should tell you who they want to room with and you'll **try** to put the requested roommates together. Then, the only roommate grouping that has priority is the one with the gay student (but you NEVER say that to the student or class).

If nobody says they want to room with the gay student, you can either assign the rooms, announce them in advance and ask for feedback or leave it up to them to rearrange themselves... OR if the numbers are conveniently off -- you can ask the gay student if they want to room with you.

In terms of sharing beds -- there are a number of creative ways prior teams have figured out how to do that... and very often people don't want to share beds... So, if sharing beds is necessary, have the roommates discuss sharing beds. One possible suggestion is to see about air mattresses (camping pads/sleeping bags etc...) -- and an understanding that nobody gets a bed both coming and going...

Also, just a travel tip -- look for older motels -- they often have two queen sized beds (not double or full... they just aren't big enough for two who aren't romantic)... they also often have sufficient floor space, recliners and other options that make it easier to put three or four in a room... and they are often cheap enough for everyone to spread out a bit :).
A point of frustration, here. If the question was: "we have one female student, and feel it wouldn't be right to ask her to pay more for a private room" we would all (rightly) argue that it is appropriate for separate accommodations, (and most likely argue that there should be no "extra" charge.)

I suppose, since we are questioning motives here, we should ask: what motivates our separating genders?
I think I'm this trip coordinator's worst nightmare - I'm bisexual and I would freak out if I had to share a bed with anyone other than a deeply trusted partner (PTSD issue). Is there really no way to ensure that students have their own beds? I second the air mattress solution.
To 6:08 AM anon:

Actually, I think in the age of The Real World the whole "people of opposite sexes can't share rooms" thing is kind of a non-issue. Even bed-sharing among opposite-sex friends can happen without it being sexual (though again, among friends and probably not strangers). That said, if it is more conventional for sexes to be separated, I think that's because of issues surrounding privacy in our culture that are gendered (for example, separate locker rooms at the gym). Thus, I don't think that the situation with the gay student is analogous to a singled-out female student. I'd think that it's much closer instead to having one black student on the trip, and singling that student out as a problem because his peers wouldn't want to share a bed with him, etc.

Also, I liked IPF's suggestions about alternatives to bed-sharing that could be worked out amongst the students.
Forcing students (of the human being persuasion) to share beds is just plain icky.

Gay, straight, disabled, whatever- it's just plain rude.

I can't believe you are blaming a gay student for your a) cheapness and/or b) laziness and/or c) incompetence at googling up "hotel" on that there interweb thang.

What, you can't find enough hotel beds between the gulf coast and your home campus?

Methinks "A new correspondent" doth protest too much. The whole issue smells like a scam.

I mean, even in the 3rd world country of Alabama they have at least more than a couple of Motel 6s . . .
Okay, first of all, Alabama is not a Third World country. It is, among other things, home to one of the nation's major academic medical centers (UAB), as well as an important NASA operations center and one of the ten largest bank holding companies in the United States (Regions).

Second ... sharing beds? No way. That's not acceptable no matter what the gender or sexual identity of the participants. If I were a student in that class I would strenuously object. I certainly would not want to share a bed with any of my classmates, for the sake of my own privacy and personal boundaries. That's simply not an appropriate position to put students in.
People get their own bed. If possible, people should get their own room, says the man who snores like a pig. I don't mind, the other folks do.

But, c'mon folks. Get enough double bed rooms for everyone, or the odd roll-away bed.
When I was a student, we all took sleeping bags and worked things out without professorial intervention (on a variety of field trips). Yes, some hanky panky went on. We were all adults, and adults have sex while travelling just as we do while at home.

Treat your students as adults, and they'll act like adults, and work things out.
I think that the policy implications have been adequately discussed by the other posters. Figure out what would get the university in trouble legally, then don't do it.

What intrigues me here are the visceral personal reactions. Thus, I'd like to arms-tossed-over-the-head testify:

When I do field work, camp, sail, am too cheap to get a hotel, miss a flight, have to get up super early, or attend a conference,or get too drunk, I sleep next to people. Sometimes they're friends, sometimes coworkers, or sometimes--gasp!--strangers. Sometimes we share a large bed, sometimes a small bed, sometimes a tent, sometimes a single blanket and we have to huddle to conserve body heat.

Despite these apparently trying situations, and regardless of the person's gender and orientation, I have managed to successfully fight the tremendous primal urge to spread my knees. I can only assume that my bed partners have tamped down the same urge. Or...wait for it...maybe there's a possiblity that as adults this isn't an issue. Situations don't dictate thoughts, and thoughts don't dictate behavior. Whoot-whoot!

As Dr. Crazy suggests, the converse is also true. Without getting too personal, I have managed to have "adult relations" in situations that did not involve random sleeping placement. Shocking. ;-)
This is why I love this blog . . .High-Larious!

The entertainment value is pricelees.

The contortions of logic we *all* use on occasion to justify the imposition of our world views on others is fascinating. The current thread is not a particularly egregious example of the concept, just a particularly illuminating one.

Also- Delicios Irony Alert- quite the "Occupational Hazard" in a profession where we get paid to do just that!
1) Asking (relative) strangers to share beds is kinda creepy (yeah, yeah, they did it all the time in the middle ages... they also had fleas)

2) Am I being too optimistic in thinking you're overestimating the homophobia of the students?
Sharing beds: Our culture has changed. When I was a college kid back in the late 60s, sharing a bed with someone of the same sex was no big deal. Maybe we grew up poorer then and were used to sharing with brothers and sisters. Whatever. But the idea of sharing a bed now is yucky for sure.

Air mattresses: The obvious solution. Students are going to be in a hotel for two nights. One person gets the bed one night, and the other gets the bed the second night.

I've been the only woman in a few grad student conference situations, although always with separate beds.

The way it seems to work out is - odd number of people, I get my own room. Otherwise I'll split with someone (male). Wear pajamas, change in the bathroom - no big deal. There've always been other grad students in the small department that I'm comfortable sharing with, although it sometimes their significant others vetoed it. There are a few I wouldn't be comfortable sharing a room with, but it's never been an issue.

In undergrad, there was a conference where we had about six students splitting a room, I think an even mix of male and female. We sorted it out fine on our own.
Gee, I was beginning to think I was a hopeless prude. The first thing I thought about this is that it isn't necessarily a homophobia issue as much as it is a personal-boundaries issue.

I often do my fieldwork with a regular collaborator who's lesbian. We always share a room, but never a bed...I think both of us would be mildly squicked to do so. Not because either of us has any worries about how the other would behave, but because (as some of the other commenters have mentioned) sharing a bed with someone who is not an intimate may be a little weird for some people.

I have shared tents with unrelated men several times, but we were each in our own sleeping bags, so no biggie. For me, it's definitely the bed issue, as opposed to a shared-room or homophobia issue. (OK, you'll have to trust me that I'm not homophobic.)

I can't tell from the original writer's letter what the exact issue is. Most hotel rooms come with either two doubles or one queen. If that's the case, no problem: ask for rooms with doubles. If you're trying to stack the students four to a room, in two queens, the best solution is probably what other commenters have suggested: allow students to pick roommates, and encourage people who are reluctant to share beds to bring sleeping bags/use cots if they'd like.
"Yes, some hanky panky went on. We were all adults, and adults have sex while travelling just as we do while at home."

Adults have sex? Really? Wow ... so there's hope that my best days weren't lost somewhere in a bed in Brighton back in '88? Oh goody!
As a speech team veteran and someone who takes undergrads on trips to festivals, yeah, sharing a bed is an economic reality. In all instances, we worked it out. And we worked it out because it was painfully clear that the university was not going to pony up money for 12 students to get 6 rooms when they could be sharing 3. We did have to observe gender segregation due to university policy, but sexuality segregation was never brought up. So ditto to intelligent evolver's advice: "Figure out what would get the university in trouble legally, then don't do it."
I just want to point out the amusement I have at reading this when I work at a single sex institution where sexuality is a *very* fluid thing for many people.

That said, I don't like sharing a bed with anyone but the hubby. Sharing a floor, okay. But there's something intimate about a bed that makes sharing with a relative stranger kind of creepy.
To yet another confused professor, is it really necessary to slam another region as you make a comment?
"TIC/sarcastic reference playing off the hidden assumption that not enough beds were available, creating the false dilemma presented. By pointing out the obvious flaw in the logic using an obviously ludicrous remark, the point was emphasized through exaggeration." [1]

"Popular in the Dark Ages, the use of Sarcasm/Tongue in Cheek language was effectively purged during the Great Cultural Awakening of the late 1970s in North America, leading to the Age of Tolerance currently enjoyed today in Modern Academic Culture. Rarely tolerated, Sarcastic/TIC humor will occasionally rear it's ugly head in some low quarters; We Must Be Vigilant!" [2], [3]

[1] From testimony of anonymous heretic #327 out of 1,200, presented at trial during Righteous Proceedings Against Mean People, joint proceedings against Group Heretics August 08.

[2] Compass Heading U, Faculty Handbook, Appendix B: Tolerance of Other Cultures, 2008

[3] See Preamble to "List of Those Entitled to Take Offense," Doctrine of Modern Language Association, Encyclical 08-134
It seems to be, just from a rather cursory reading, that a clue here is the use of "openly homosexual" by the correspondent, instead of gay, openly gay, etc. While nomenclature changes and is affected by different experiential dimensions, the invocation of 'the homosexual' seems to put the onus on the gay student as problem, as the term typically is used by the political Right (as in "The Homosexual Agenda"). If that is indeed the case, I think some of Dean Dad's original commentary is apropos (i.e., get over it).

Gay men don't turn into Satyrs when sharing facilities with other (presumably str8) men. After all, we do it everyday, from the locker room to the urinal.
I'm a pretty laid-back guy, and I would still feel a little weird sharing a bed with anybody. However, if it were SOP, I'd get used to it.

The sexual orientation of my bedmate would be briefly worrying until I got over the remnants of my upbringing. As DD notes, out gay folks are easier to be around than closeted gay folks.

I like the idea of people submitting room (bed) mate requests.
How about making it 100% the students' decision and including the following language in the announcement:

The cost of the trip will be:

$X four to a room in the hotel
$Y three to a room in the hotel
$Z two to a room in the hotel
$W single room in hotel

The hotel rooms have two queen beds. A cot is available for $V. When you turn in your sign-up sheet for the trip, indicate who you will be rooming with in the hotel. All persons rooming together need to turn in their forms and money together.
Call me a liberal as well but I do not see an issue here. I am guessing with a number of people sharing a bed the only thiong that will be taking place in that bed is, gasp, dare I say, Sleeping!
Uhh yeah; that and the exchange of a variety of (not necessarily sexual) biological materials . . . including DNA-carrying tissue and airborne/surface borne pathogens.

Like several of us have already mentioned- Ick!

(why do some people always have to assume "sex" is the most important/only issue?!?!?)
I wouldn't shirk from sharing a bed with a gay acquaintance because I think he'd hit on me.

I'd shirk from sharing a bed because I don't like to sleep with anyone but a few select people. I snore. I wiggle my feet. I do NOt like to have anyone else snoring (or wiggling their feet) next to me, however! ;)

Personally, I think it is A-OK to ask adults to share ROOMS, and not really OK to ask them to share BEDS. Do with that what you will: rent a new air mattresses at your local EMS for the week, why don't you?

And if you reeeeeeeally need to share beds: use sleeping bags and turn down the heat. People in sleeping bags have their own personal space in a manner that people sharing blankets do not. that's why sharing a tent feel so different from sharing the covers. And most people own (or can borrow) a sleeping bag.
My son - who is 15 and openly bisexual - went on a debate trip where he was forced to share beds with another boy. One "straight" kid offered for my son to be with him in his bed, so my son shared with him rather than an openly gay kid. The "straight" kid - who weighed twice what my very slender son weighed - then proceeded to make sexual advances on my son once they were in bed and trying to get to sleep!!

I blame the school system for being so cheap as to not make sure everyone has their own beds. Sometimes the gay kid is NOT the problem. And predators come in all ages!
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