Love Nesting 101
For the first two years of my college career, I was single. Though I dated a bit, I found the romantic waters of Harvard Yard extremely cold, populated either with overly aggressive killer whales or terrified guppies. I am one of those women who see no need for a companion who is anything short of amazing, and therefore found no reason to set up house in the Yard with a goldfish. Furthermore, the annual freshman screening of Love Story suggested that only terminal illness could result from long-term relationships. It just wasn't a healthy idea.
After two years of haphazard dating, however, I decided that I was going to grow up and at least try that adult "relationship thing." Little did I know that my roommates had similar plans. They, too, went out into the semi-claustrophobic world of heterosexual college dating and plucked two fine, handsome young bachelors from the ever-dwindling crop of single senior men. The first arrived at the start of the school year from Eliot House; the second via occasional airplanes and frequent phone calls from Washington, D.C. The third (mine) came from a lunch in the Leverett House dining hall. They are all very nice. And they're all named Dave.
We have Big Dave (6 feet 7, 280 pounds), Medium Dave (6 feet 2, 220 pounds) and Little Dave (5 feet 11, 175 pounds). Apparently college men are very size-conscious, because Medium Dave is still somewhat scared of Big Dave, and Little Dave continues to be freaked out that he is Little Dave. But aside from that, they appear to get along fine, aside from the occasional manly eyeing of each other.
Relationship Land—or "Dave Land," as we call it—is very different from Single Land. Our room dynamic changes when coed: the minimal attire that we trudge around in amongst ourselves is upgraded to full-coverage apparel, and the girl-talk factor plummets. The time that we once spent plotting our evenings and potential relationships has given way to conversations in which we all agree, such as "Ohhh, Dave writes the most adorable e-mails!" and summary statements, such as, "Daves are great!" It's convenient. It is also nice to have three women in steady relationships, lest the odd woman out develop a fit of silent jealousy.
Alas, there are also significant logistical problems. The usual phone introduction of "Hi, this is Dave," is not helpful in my suite, where phones are constantly being hand-ed to the wrong person, causing general room chaos. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that my childhood best friend is also named Dave, and that two of the Daves find our confusion hilarious, and pretend to be each other on the phone:
"Hey, this is Dave."
"You're Becky's Dave, right?"
"No, I'm your Dave."
"Dave!...Wait, you're not my Dave, are you? This is Ari."
"Ari? Who's Ari? I don't know anyone named Ari."
And in this manner, Dave Land peacefully continues in Leverett D-43, with at least one Dave wandering around our suite at any time. They come and go as they please, as do we.
Not all colleges tolerate the nighttime wanderings of Daves (or students with other names and genders) around the dorms of their significant others. Right across the Charles River, the 10,000 dorm-dwelling students of Boston University (more than 75 percent of that student body) are required to escort their visitors out at 1 a.m. each weeknight and 2:30 a.m. on weekends. Students are allowed only five overnight visitor passes per semester, and face strict paperwork requirements to register visitors. Dorm-to-dorm visits are forbidden after midnight, with the exception of "study extensions."
BU chancellor John Silber drew strong student criticism this past March for his letter in the school newspaper reprimanding students for seeking "sessions of fun and games" and stating, "It never occurred to us that [BU] was in the business of providing weekend love nests for our students." The student body, unamused, find themselves encouraged to continue their adult relationships in "love nests" far away from the moral gaze of the university.
Brian Rejack, a sophomore at Boston University, spent his first three semesters dating his hometown girlfriend. "Because you get only five passes, if you have a girlfriend and three friends, that's it," he says. BU students are also forced to find same-sex hosts for their guests, so "At the beginning of this year, I didn't know any girls, and I was running around to find a room of girls where all occupants were there to co-sign my form."
Students, as participants in adult emotional relationships, deserve free access to their peers. The same education system that considers undergraduates mature enough to choose their own academic paths and face adult disciplinary measures should also consider students mature enough to decide their own relationship patterns. Despite this, many students find themselves cooped up in their rooms alone by juvenile university regulations. Schools with strong religious affiliations can be particularly harsh, forbidding members of the opposite sex in dorms altogether, or requiring doors to remain open. Notre Dame is known for its strict policies toward student relationships, enforced by clergy living in most of the dorms.
Though some schools, such as Amherst College, respect varying lifestyles by offering both a "quiet dorm" (housing with noise rules) and single-sex floors at student request, other schools, such as Penn State, place students in coed and single-sex dorms partly at random. Rebecca Layne, a sophomore at Penn State, was placed in an all-female dorm her freshman year. "Men have to be escorted around the building—you have to be with them at all times," she says. "My boyfriend got in trouble for walking around my dorm, talking to his friends. They will punish you if they find you—it's harsh."
As these experiences show, visitor rules are not only archaic and aggravating, but deeply intrusive. (Equally problematic, they also assume that all students are heterosexual.) Though some students appreciate alternative dorm options, most students by the age of 18 make their own decisions regardless of official rules. Many students at Harvard and elsewhere still do choose to lead pious lives of study and innocence in coed dorms, avoiding the threats of alcohol and—dare I say it?—sexual relations. (Indeed, this year's Independent survey showed that 23.8 percent of Harvard seniors are still virgins.) But the students who want to carry on mature relationships that are not accommodated by school policies find themselves forced to break school rules, a situation that is less than fair.
Luckily, Harvard offersno special dorms, and our student handbook is vague on the matter of visitors: "Guests: A person not regularly assigned to a particular dormitory or House may not be lodged in that dormitory or House for more than a brief stay without the permission of the Proctor, Assistant Dean of Freshmen, or the Senior Tutor or Master. The consent of other occupants of the room is also always required."
As students interpret it, "brief stay" is undefined, and roommates have more control over visitors than administrators do. It's a beautiful system. The only official interference I have witnessed is when pairs of freshman roommates date each other, and then swap rooms. Proctors are not fans of coed freshman suites, and will often send one student packing. Savvy upperclassmen, however, are well aware of the existence of firedoors between suites, and often strategically select rooms next to significant others, and then open the connecting door. The relationship happily continues in close quarters, unless the couple breaks up, at which point the fire door is abruptly closed (or slammed).
Given the University's hands-off stance, the only visitor rules students obey are their own. So life in Dave Land happily continues, with a stream of Daves in and out 20 hours a day.
However, there comes a point in every Dave relationship when Dave's parents must be met. As a potential walking target for Dave's mother, I found this prospect terrifying. I really liked my relationship, and wanted my Dave to continue wandering my suite among the other Daves as Harvard allows; I didn't want an unhappy Dave's Mom trying to steer him in another direction. Suddenly I understood mother-in-law/daughter-in-law angst in a nutshell.
But I had other things (such as papers) to worry about, and avoided thinking about "the meeting." My friends, however, did not help ease my worrying. The few times I mentioned meeting "the parents," one of two responses ensued: "Oooohhhh, stressful," or "Whhoooaaaa." Only one person was vaguely helpful, commenting, "Don't worry, I think you're kind of likable, right?" This was not encouraging.
So I came up with a plan. Dave and his visiting parents were going out for breakfast. I was going to bite the bullet and wake up at 8:30 a.m. (gasp) and be friendly and charming for one hour over eggs and English muffins. I planned an appropriate outfit. It would all be fine, and maybe even all right. Everything was going to be great.
My plan crashed and burned.
Dave's parents were running late the night before the breakfast, so I went over to Dave's off-campus apartment to keep him company while he waited for their phone call. I was exhausted after a day spent teaching high-schoolers about sleep health, so I put on some pajamas and promptly fell asleep. Three hours later, I woke up, slipped on his sweater, noted my smudged eye make-up and spiked hair, and trudged into the kitchen for water.
And then there was a knock at the door. And then there were Dave's parents. Because they were late, rather than take him out for dinner, they had decided to stop by, bringing food, to see their son.
I found this situation borderline mortifying. They say people decide whether they like others within one minute of meeting them, and I looked like hell. Instead of charming, I seemed comatose. Instead of intelligence, I leaked confusion. Luckily, they didn't seem to care, and politely chit-chatted with me while I drank my water. When Dave's father asked if I was coming to breakfast, I replied, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to meet you."
Breakfast was much more pleasant, because I was both awake and dressed. Over coffee, the conversation wandered toward his parents' recollections of college relationships. Although I found this topic vaguely uncomfortable, I listened.
As many readers may remember, Harvard and Radcliffe used to enforce parietal hours. During the 1960s, women's dorms were allowed up to 25 parietal hours a week, set by the individual dormitory. Many dorms used only eight of those hours, often insisting on open doors and the "three feet on the floor" mantra. The men's dorms had slightly more flexible parietal hours, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. each evening with doors allowed to close. "It was very strange to be carrying on these relationships between the hours of four and seven," said Dave's father, class of 1966. "Good, but strange."
Dave's mother, a law professor and feminist, pointed out the troubling mores that grow up around such regulations. Laws and rules of any kind often become part of a culture, and placing hours around when girlfriends and boyfriends can rendezvous inherently sets a standard for the appearance of the opposite sex. For example, if an all-female dorm forbids men, the men become used to seeing women fully made-up—wearing skirts, earrings, and foundation. "Women were supposed to be in lipstick, always," said Dave's mom, a member of the class of 1968.
Their comments reminded me how one of the shocking parts of first relationships is learning how "real" others are first thing in the morning, pre-shower and make-up. When this part is deleted, it is easy to see how women might be conceived of as sex objects—creatures who are always immaculately put together, and automatically arrive in men's dorms at university-decided times.
The general bewilderment Dave and I expressed at the thought of this system (I asked how to spell "parietal") shows how underappreciated Harvard's policies are by current students who have never heard of "three feet on the floor," and don't realize that other colleges still enforce archaic visitor rules. "You guys live in a different world," said Dave's mom.
After happily surviving breakfast, I headed back to Dave Land to catch up on sleep. Despite Harvard's lack of formal visitor rules, there are still a few practical limitations quietly in place—notably, our horribly narrow and flimsy dorm beds. Medium Dave takes up the entire bed by himself, let alone Big Dave. The same rules that BU stringently enforces—sending visitors home at 1 a.m.—are frequently obeyed at Harvard by choice.
The other parameter is time: in the words of my roommate, "Daves are a huge timesink." Harvard students are incredibly busy, and when Daves are around, no work gets done. So Daves are sent home so that classes can be attended, and productive work accomplished (such as the writing of this article).
Uh-oh, I gotta go—I just heard a knock at the door, Dave's here.
Three cheers for Harvard love nests.
Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is one of this magazine's 2001-2002 Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows.
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