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The Perils Of Co-Ed College

Jon Mandle at Crooked Timber points to an article (pdf, scroll to the end) in which a Harvard alum-turned-professor compares relations between the sexes in his day and today:

Men are less spirited than they were in my day, when we lived in relative isolation from women. Men today are always in the presence of women, hence always in fear of making fools of themselves before women. College men have become premature husbands.

Granted I've never attended an all-male college, and perhaps Harvard is different from Colgate, but I find this analysis counter to my experience. The underlying assumption here is that the main reason young men would not "be themselves" is a desire to impress women. I find that wrong on two counts (well, three, but since my experience is as a heterosexual, I'll grant for the sake of argument the author's presumption that all Harvard undergrads are straight).

First is the idea that men want to impress, in a romantic/sexual sense, any and all women. I wouldn't say I was "not myself" around women whose affections I wanted, but I was more self-conscious about showing my best side. However, such women were only a very small fraction of all the women I interacted with. The fact that Missi and Bethanie were female didn't make my behavior around them any different from my behavior around Mikey or Dan.

Second is the idea that the only reason men would not "be themselves" is in order to score romantically/sexually. Young men have many things to prove to many people, "I'm a suitable romantic/sexual partner" being just one of them. For example, in an all-male situation there's pressure to prove to the other men that you're manly enough. Indeed, in my experience this need to alter your self-presentation to gain the acceptance of other men is if anything stronger in an all-male environment. When gender is the criterion for whether you're allowed to be there, it becomes more important to prove that you belong. Co-ed groups shift the balance toward gender-neutral criteria of coolness.

I can sort of see how this idea may have arisen. When your environment is all male almost all the time, your behavior around other men may come to seem "normal" or "yourself," obscuring the ways you alter your self-presentation. And when you only see women when they're deliberately imported as dates, your interactions with them are dominated by the romance/sex issue and the different self-presentation that a formal dating ritual requires.

There may also be a question of individual differences in ability to fit in. Due to either nature or nurture, I get along easily with women, but I'm not particularly macho, so a co-ed environment suits me just fine while the problems of a gender-segregated one stick out. The author of this article, on the other hand, may be for whatever reason very comfortable in all-male environments, while acutely aware of the self-presentation demands of courtship.


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