Advice About College Roommates and Sex

Roommates
Roommates. Photo by Josh Blake, iStock Photo

Every college parent gets a call about roommate squabbles. This time, it's "My roommate's boyfriend (or girlfriend) has practically moved in. And whenever I leave, even just to take a shower, they've put the 'signal' on the door by the time I return and I can't get back in. Help!"

One of the most valuable parts of the college and dorm experience is learning to live with other people. Roommate squabbles are your child's problem to fix, but playing the role of the sympathetic sounding board, perhaps by asking a few gentle questions, can help your child find his own solutions.

And sometimes your child doesn't want a fix, just Mom murmuring sympathetically. So it's helpful to...

  1. Murmur sympathetically, of course. It's pretty awful to get caught out in the hall wearing nothing but a wet towel, although your child will probably get plenty of entertainment value out of the story when she tells her friends back home. Heck, we all love awful roommate stories.
  2. Gently ask how she has tried to resolve it. Has she talked to her roommate? These discussions are best held when one roommate isn't standing in the hall in a wet towel, while the other ones ... Dorm RAs urge roommates to discuss room rules the first week of school for a very good reason. It not only sets up expectations for living together - "Thou shalt not take my sweaters without asking" - it also sets a precedent for discussing roommate issues. It's much easier to talk about problems down the road because they've already done it once.
  1. Move-in boyfriends and 24/7 room sex weren't part of that discussion? It's never too late to revisit room rules, especially when it's done in the same spirit of compromise that governed the original discussion. And there's lots of room for compromise between "I never want to see your boyfriend here again" and "I'm standing in the hall in a wet towel, staring at a sock draped over the doorknob." Harlan Cohen, the author of The Naked Roommate, suggests limiting the number of times the "signal" can be used in a single week, for example, or devising an "I need access to our room, so don't put up your signal" signal.
  1. Be aware that sometimes the problem being voiced doesn't reflect the actual issue. Obviously, being stranded, dripping, in the hall is problematic, but what else is mixed up in here? Is she upset over the general loss of privacy, grossed out by the overt sexuality, missing her room back home, reminded of her own lack of beau, or checking to see if you're horrified by the idea of college hook-ups? Or all of the above?
  2. If your child has already tried talking to her roommate and nothing is working, do not call the housing office or the dean of student life. Your child needs to go to her dorm RA for help. Her RA is trained to do roommate conflict resolution and can set a room change in motion, if necessary.
  3. And finally, realize that when your child calls up all upset over something, she's reaching out for comfort. Once the problem is solved, it disappears. So don't worry if you don't get a second phone call reporting that everything's jolly now. This is a case where no news is good news.