Co-ed dorms linked to more drinking, sex

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In findings that may confirm parents’ worries, a new study suggests that co-ed college dorms are encouraging kids to drink heavily and have more sex.

In a survey of more than 500 students at five U.S. universities, researchers found that students living in co-ed housing were 2.5 times more likely than those in all-male or all-female dorms to admit to binge-drinking on a weekly basis. They were also more than twice as likely to say they’d had at least three sex partners in the past year.

The findings, published in the Journal of American College Health, may not surprise many college students.

“A lot of the reaction we’ve been getting from students is, ‘Well, we’ve known that,’” said lead researcher Dr. Brian J. Willoughby, who conducted the study while at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and is now a visiting professor at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City.

However, Willoughby told Reuters Health, the findings should make more universities, researchers and parents aware of the issue.

He noted that 90 percent of university housing in the U.S. is now co-ed -- part of a larger move away from the traditional notion that colleges should act as stand-ins for parents and enforce rules on students’ social behavior.

“This transition to co-ed housing has happened without an evaluation of its effects,” Willoughby said.

In their study, Willoughby and colleague Dr. Jason S. Carroll found that more than 41 percent of students in co-ed housing said they binged on a weekly basis, versus just fewer than 18 percent of those in single-sex dorms.

And whereas 63 percent of students in single-sex housing said they’d had no sexual partners in the past year, this was true of only 44 percent of students in co-ed dorms. Of students in co-ed housing, almost 13 percent said they had had three or more sexual partners in the past year, compared with 5 percent of students in single-sex dorms.

Moreover, Willoughby said, the findings did not appear to be a matter of “selection” -- that is, kids who are more prone to drinking and sex being more likely to request co-ed housing.

Few college students specifically ask for single-sex housing, the researcher noted, and most that end up in those dorms were simply placed there by their universities.

Willoughby and Carroll also surveyed the students on characteristics like religiousness and personality traits such as impulsivity and extroversion, and found that those factors did not explain away the connection between co-ed housing and drinking and sex.

Willoughby speculated that co-ed dorms may implicitly set different “social norms” than single-sex housing does. Students, he explained, may expect co-ed dorms to have higher rates of drinking and sex, which may make them more likely to live up to those expectations.

“It’s not necessarily simply about women and men living together,” Willoughby said.

SOURCE: Journal of American College Health 2009.