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BALLARO: Our failure to talk about sex is harmful


Column: Thoughts From the LX

I was on my way back through my residence hall from a long day of riding LX buses when I saw it. It was a monolith.

A sock on a door handle.

It needed no bus quote or preamble, the sock was quote worthy enough on its own.

It was funny, what perhaps used to be a means of subtle communication turned into a great big unmistakable icon. Short of a flashing neon sign with whirring noisemakers, a sock on a door handle was the most obvious way of talking about “it."

Sex. Intercourse. Coitus. How explicit can I be?

Allow me a short diversion.

What is a four letter word that has to do with sex that ends with the letter K? _ _ _ K? Feel free to write these down as a list. Get creative. 

Okay, are you ready? There is one word that rarely seems to appear on this list and yet it is probably the most important thing we can do when it comes to sex.

Talk.

We do not feel comfortable talking about sex, even when it is with other partners. This exercise is not meant to shame anyone for our “dirty” minds. Instead, it is meant to get us thinking. 

Maybe it is the trainwreck that is high school sexual education taught by your unqualified, uncomfortable gym teacher. Maybe it is that some of us learned more lessons about sex from pornography than our parents. Maybe it was those Puritans that sailed across the Atlantic and formed the foundations for more than 250 years of repressed sexuality.

There are just some problems another Rutgers leadership seminar cannot fix.

The Journal of College and University Student Housing, vol. 41, 2014, "Sexiled: Privacy Acquisition Strategies of College Roommates," talks just about that.

For the uninitiated, sexiling is the act of exiling one’s roommate for the purpose of monopolizing the shared room for intimate purposes with a guest. 

"Sexiled" talks about the ways in which students communicate with each other, either explicitly or implicitly (or not at all), about their individual needs for privacy in a shared living space. Up to 82% of respondents surveyed indicated having experienced some issue with this in the past. 

Socks-on-doors was just one in a variety of ways students communicated to their roommates in pre-negotiated strategies for acquiring privacy. In total, 53% of respondents reported having some prior conversation with their roommate for strategies. 

In 2020 at least, from anecdotal interviews with friends, I gathered that often, a simple courtesy text was the preferred method of getting privacy for students at Rutgers.

But what about the other 47%?

Tufts University decided to ban sex in 2009 for that very problem. To this day, according to Tufts’ housing guidelines under Residential Policies, subsection “Your Guests”, it says, and I quote:

“You may not tell your roommate to stay out of the room at any time or engage in sexual activity when your roommate is present.”

Apparently, it was too difficult to expect adults cohabiting to have frank discussions about their personal needs. At the time of implementation, this stirred up excessive amounts of alarmist primetime news segments of colleges “gone too far.” And while I feel stories like these are often overblown, in this instance I agree.

Tufts felt the need to micromanage students' sex lives, and yet concurrently from 2008 to 2009, it had begun to mishandle a sexual assault case so egregiously they violated Title IX and risked termination of their federal funding.

After being assaulted and abused for two years by an ex-partner, survivor Wagatwe Wanjuki was ultimately expelled from Tufts for having the courage to report her assailant to University officials. 

Wanjuki later went on to work as an organizer in the “Know Your IX” campaign.

Tufts eventually “made progress in creating a safer community by revamping sexual misconduct regulations,”  according to a 2017 editorial by The Tufts Daily, which is promising.

I bring this story up not only to lift the voices of survivors and give hope to survivors of achieving justice, but also to communicate the severity of the current state of unease regarding the realities of sex in America.

Even at our own university, we have groups like End Assault at Rutgers fighting for justice among students, particularly in the case against sexual abuser and disgraced former vice chancellor for the Office of Research and Collaborations at Rutgers—Newark, Nabil Adam. But that is a story for another time.

In an interview, Wanjuki said “One of the biggest problems with sexual violence is that a lot of people don’t talk about it.”

If we already have trouble talking about sex, it almost feels inevitable that sexual injustices continue to occur.

But, I do not believe that we need to accept injustice as the status quo. I believe we can rewrite the narrative and get comfortable talking about the uncomfortable.

Sometimes, that just takes starting a conversation about socks on door handles.

Anthony Ballaro is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in classics and public health. His column, "Thoughts from the LX," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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