What’s wrong with Whitworth’s cohab policy

by Emily Goodell

When new students are welcomed to Whitworth, they are reminded they are only forbidden three things on campus: Cohabitation, drugs/alcohol and disturbance of peace. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

The principles themselves make sense, but the policies do not. While the administration’s rules governing the latter two are fairly explicit, the first of the three is an intimate matter that is hard to legislate. The nature of cohabitation means that the policy is less straightforward because what constitutes sex is ambiguous.

I believe that the fundamental conviction of the cohabitation policy is valid and necessary for a Christian university to uphold.  According to the student handbook, this policy exists because of Whitworth’s, “commitment to the authority of scripture leads us to believe that the genital sexual relationship is to be understood and experienced within the context of marriage, and that to express it otherwise would diminish the high regard we have for this gift from God.”

While I agree with the university’s commitment to the value, I do not think that the policy is effective in upholding that value.

In order to understand the arguments against the effectiveness of the policy, we need to look at what cohabitation is and what it is not. The student handbook says, “We understand the term ‘cohabitation’ to include genital sexual contact outside marriage, and/or the spending of a night together by two people engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship or encounter.”

The handbook also provides a practical application definition of the policy: “persons who spend extended hours of a night together, who sleep together, and/or who engage in genital contact even if it falls short of actual intercourse.”

Despite these regulations, 103 of 291 students said they have violated the cohabitation policy without getting caught according to a Whitworthian survey. While every policy has its share of violations, I believe that number is significant enough to indicate that the policy is not working effectively.

One problem is the process of investigation because it’s based on preponderance of evidence. Dean of Student Life Rhosetta Rhodes addressed this in an interview. She explained that when a complaint arises against a student, indicating that they may have violated the policy, Student Life talks to the student to see if they violated policy.

If the student in question says that he or she has not violated the policy, then the student is taken at their word unless enough evidence arises to prove differently. Much of the evidence that is brought forth refers to testimony from a witness or complainant.

Hypothetically, there could be an incident in which numerous witnesses  attest that a student violated the policy when they in truth did not. Rhodes addressed this, saying that the administration does not charge people on the basis of unfounded allegations.

“Someone comes up and alleges a policy violation, you’re going to do due diligence to investigating whether or not it happened,” Rhodes said.

However, the more problematic issue is that if there is not sufficient evidence against a student that has violated the policy, and they say that they haven’t violated the policy, they are taken at their word.

Another issue with the policy is its ambiguity or vagueness. The first definition that describes the actual premise of the policy is the foundation on which the policy rests. Seeing as administrators are not policing the grounds for cohabitation or in the room with the students witnessing the violation firsthand, they provide three extra definitions: spending extended hours of a night together, sleeping together and any kind of genital contact.

The no genital contact rule adheres with the “no sex” intention of the policy. However, the extended hours rule and sleeping rule are problematic. There is no mention of what counts as extended hours.

The vagueness is felt by the students. When surveyed, one anonymous respondent said, “I feel the current cohab policy is very ambiguous, hard to enforce and easy to break.”

Rhodes said that the vagueness is on purpose, because its intention is to apply to students who spend the night together. This still does not provide adequate information for students. With many dorms having 24-hour visitation policies, the phrase “extended hours of a night” is too vague to be effective.

The issue of the term “sleeping together” is that it is unclear if this refers to sleeping together in the connotative sexual manner or if they mean taking a nap. I assume it to be the former, or if it is the latter, I assume that it is because there are few ways for the administration to discern whether students are having sex if they are allowed to spend the night together. Either way, it needs to be more explicitly stated.

A survey respondent said, “I have violated cohab in the sense that I have accidentally fallen asleep in a room of the opposite gender whilst watching a movie. There is a huge distinction between sleeping and having sex and the current policy does not see that distinction.”

This indicates a startling lack of awareness for student rights and responsibilities regarding cohabitation.

This is important because this policy is foundational to Whitworth culture. We live by the Big Three religiously, literally. If there is an issue with one of those policies, however large or small, it affects every single student in this university.

I’d like to again point out that I am critiquing the cohabitation policy as being ineffective and needing further clarification, but am in no way criticizing the value or necessity of the policy itself. I have simply reviewed the effectiveness relative to ineffectiveness of the policy, indicating that there are issues that need to resolved.

I am advocating that students, as well as the administration,  review the policy to ascertain the presence of any flaws in the policy and  address whether changes need to be made to the policy. In order to fulfill Whitworth’s Christian commitment to maintain that its students adhere to scripture and not have sex until marriage, the cohabitation policy needs to be revisited.

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