Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Thou Shalt Not... Copulate?

Wait... you mean college students like having sex with each other?

Publicity is a funny thing. Any press is good press, right? So I suppose I should be happy that my current place of employ is being covered by US News & World Report, The New York Times, and Huffington Post among other outlets. Why is Tufts in the news? Well, if you haven't yet heard, it's because our Office of Residential Life just instituted a formal policy prohibiting students from engaging in sexual activity while their roommate is present in the room.

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If nothing else, the rule certainly has inspired conversation and a number of questions. Like should a university be legislating private behavior in the privacy of dorm rooms? And how, exactly, will such a rule be enforced? If thou shall not be fruitful and multiply in the presence of witnesses is the newest sexual commandment, what are the other 9? And what do I do when my advisees come to office hours to ask whether this means that sex with their roommates is now against the rules as well?

It's amazing how much attention this is getting–I imagine we're only days (or hours?) away from some tongue-in-cheek PR at the hands of Letterman, Conan, Jon Stewart, and colleagues. To me, perhaps the most interesting reactions are those that focus on the question of Why Bother? As in, what's the point of formalizing such a rule and how on earth would anyone ever enforce it?

But I don't think enforcement is the objective here. Why was the Office of ResLife moved to introduce the rule? According to our campus paper, because there were apparently a "significant number of complaints last year from residents bothered by their roommates' sexual behavior... [it] was one of the most commonly cited sources of conflict between roommates."

One would think that not having sex in a room simultaneously occupied by a third party would be an unwritten rule with enough cache to prevent problems. Indeed, some would argue that our new rule is unnecessary because it should already be covered by a general sense of public decency. But it would seem that decency alone wasn't getting the job done!

As psychologists have demonstrated time and again, on a regular basis our actions are shaped by social norms–the unwritten rules that govern appropriate behavior in different situations. Norms are what tell us not to kick off our shoes and put our feet on the desk during a job interview. Norms dictate how much personal space you keep between yourself and a conversation partner–details that vary when you visit another country or an ATM at night. Norms are what prevent us from yelling out accusations during a formal, nationally televised speech to Congress... or, at least, what are supposed to prevent such outbursts.

But what Joe Wilson and... shall we say, overzealous Tufts students teach us is that as powerful as norms are, some rules aren't strong enough when they remain unwritten. I agree with the critics–I never would have imagined that a formal rule like this was necessary. But apparently it is. And apparently I'm lucky that the worst thing my freshman roommate did was hit the snooze button on his alarm clock four times each morning before his early math class.

Why is the rule now on the books? Though I don't profess to have played any role in its creation, I imagine that it has little to do with actual enforcement and everything to do with making clear what should have been self-evident to obliviously inconsiderate roommates. Hopefully, having the rule in effect will serve as a reminder that this type of behavior is unacceptable. And the next person to run afoul of it will have lost the ability to argue that he was trying to be discreet or that she didn't know she was doing anything wrong.

In other words, Tufts has now effectively rendered moot the notorious Costanza Defense (because, let's face it, no discussion of norms is complete without at least a brief tip of the cap to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who have built entertainment dynasties by exploring on their shows the power of norms and the consequences of violating them).

Of course, I refer to the infamous response of Seinfeld's George Costanza as he learns from his boss that his after-hours fling with the office cleaning woman was not as discreet as he thought it was: "Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon..."

I'm proud to report that Tufts now stands alone as the only institution of higher learning at which this type of argument no longer holds water. Somewhere, I'm sure Elaine Benes, fictitious Tufts alumna that she is, beams with pride.

Hey, good for us, I say. There are plenty of other norms people don't follow these days that merit similar legislative action on a wider scale. Maybe some system of fines would deter the cretins who barge into elevators or subway cars without first letting out the exiting passengers. Or those who talk so loud on their cell phones that they leave you no choice but to listen to the conversation. And adults who use vulgarities within earshot of little kids, and parents who let their tantrum-throwing toddlers cry it out even when in the public space of an adult restaurant.

Hell, I'd support jail time for drivers who don't give the thank-you wave after you've let them go in front of you.

Feel free to add your own commandments in need of enactment–I'm sure I've only scratched the surface. Unwritten rules and norms have a powerful guiding influence on how we act. But as we learn from the apparently irresistible urge to copulate while cohabitating, sometimes that just isn't deterrent enough.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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