How America’s Biggest Student Co-Op Got a Sex Room
I’ve heard that when you have a roommate, a sock on the doorknob is a common sign that you’re having sex inside the room. However, living in a 150-person undergraduate co-op, I had to use a more advanced strategy, involving research, spreadsheets, and debate. That’s right: Because of my roommate troubles, the largest student co-op in the United States got an organized, formally maintained sex room, and I’m going to tell you how it all went down.
The Cloyne Court Co-op at the University of California, Berkeley, sits on the north side of the university’s hill. It’s an attractive place to live, given that the rent for a shared room and full board at Cloyne Court is about 40% cheaper than neighboring private rooms. Such an endeavor also necessitates extreme organization: Each resident must work five hours a week—cooking, cleaning, distributing food, gardening, etc.—or risk being fined, and these “workshifts” are logged into a centralized website. Each resident also owes four hours of “home improvement” (HI) work every semester.
Sounds great, right? It indeed was, in many ways, a special project. However, there were some downsides for a 26-year-old grad student. Cloyne was a sober co-op. No alcohol or marijuana was allowed inside, which selected for a specific mindset in the residents. Most residents were undergrads; the average age was around 20. Furthermore, many rooms were shared.
I happened to be in a shared room for the semester I lived there — and my roommate was a bit of a homebody who rarely left the room. As a gay man who was accustomed to having his own room for the past five years, I found myriad challenges in the setup. Most relevant to our story, though, was that it was suddenly a lot tougher to have sex.
Out of necessity, I started using the co-op’s common meditation room. The meditation room suited the purpose — it had pretty Christmas lights and a nice ambiance. The guys I brought there were often impressed. The room didn’t lock, however, so I would send an email to the house each time notifying everyone that the room would be occupied. My actions were fine, I thought; we were all adults and understood the need, right?
Not quite. I started to understand, almost implicitly — through the osmotic channels engendered by such a community — that some were upset. This could be bad: I feared a formal rebuke or ban codified during the weekly residents’ council meeting.
I decided to get ahead of any such reaction.
At the next council, I stood up and explained that I thought a formally maintained sex room might help the house and requested that the house commission a study to understand the desire and need for one. I asked to spend my HI hours leading the research and recruiting volunteers.
There was some cautious discussion, but I stressed that I was asking for research only. The president called a vote. Out of the 40 or so residents present, there was only a single “nay.” I felt I had the people’s mandate.
I spent the week drafting a survey and then convened the first meeting of the Sex Space Committee to workshop the survey. Joining me on the team were Cherod Johnson, another grad student in the house, and two undergrads, Abeer Sehrawat and Raveena (who no longer uses a last name). We met regularly to brainstorm and workshop. Their contributions crucially shaped the final form of the survey and proposal.
On the survey, we wanted to know basic demographics and characterize how people used the house. Next, we wanted to understand the way people currently had sex: whether they had it inside the house or away, how frequently, and generally with whom. We also wanted to get people’s honest views on a sex space, specifically whether they believed Cloyne needed it or not. A week later, we had close to 90 responses, and I set to work analyzing the results.
Now, I’ve been around the block when it comes to data analysis. I have a BS in statistics and computer science, and I’ve done intensive data analyses for the U.S. Department of Energy, Google Ventures, and three different Bay Area technology startups. I say this not to brag but to emphasize that I mean it when I say that I undertook this endeavor in good faith and with honest intentions, and that I tried my best not to let any bias guide the results I showed.
And, to be up front with methodological caveats, there were indeed concerns that we couldn’t completely eliminate. First, we administered the survey to a population who was familiar with my desire for the sex room, so the survey respondents were aware of a bias and may have varied their responses positively or negatively. (We tried to alleviate this by sending the surveys through Abeer’s email, but concern for the data’s sanctity remains.) Second, self-selected residents of Cloyne are not representative of the general population, so we caution the generalization of results beyond the population of our survey. Third, our survey may suffer from a “selection on unobservables” — we have no idea how the population of those who took the survey differs from those who did not.
Every single question we asked about sexual habits revealed statistically relevant differences between the queer and straight respondents.
That said, I was honestly surprised at the results that emerged from my analysis. I expected the way people have sex would vary greatly between demographic groups; that is, I expected women to have sex with a different frequency than men, black people from Asian from white, and queer from straight.
Instead, I found that all other demographics were indistinguishable from each other except for queer vs. straight — and that demographic was consistently different across the board. Every single question we asked about sexual habits revealed statistically relevant differences between the queer and straight respondents. Queer people had significantly more sex than straight people, with significantly more partners, and were significantly more likely to be okay with someone else using a sex room (as well as wanting one for their own use). Specifically, queer people reported an average of 2.5 sexual experiences a week, whereas straight people reported one; queer people traveled 30 minutes more than straight people for each sexual experience; queer people averaged one to 1.5 points higher on a five-point scale when asked to rate comfort with a sex space for their own use and others. A sex space appeared to be a queer issue.
A sex space also seemed to be a practical issue. After controlling for demographics, we found that the more often people reported their sex interrupted by roommates, the more conflict they tended to have. The more conflicts people reported having with their roommates, the more likely they were to travel outside Cloyne for sex, and the more they tended to want a sex room. People’s views tended to be more positive toward a sex room with a cleaning structure and guidelines than one without. And while only 1% to 2% of respondents claimed to use the co-op’s common dark room or meditation room, a full 24% said they would expect to use the sex room at least once a semester.
The argument seemed clear. It just didn’t make sense to leave the issue of sex unspoken: This was a real part of residents’ lives, and it was causing hardship throughout the house. Furthermore, it seemed as though the lack of a sex room disproportionately affected queer people. The desire for structure was reasonable, so the committee drafted two proposals about what a formal structure for maintenance and cleanliness could look like. We proposed a BYOSheets policy, workshift hours allocated for cleaning, and a printed schedule for reserving time.
We got up in front of the council with slides during the last meeting of the semester. More than 100 people showed up, packing the dining hall and leaning in from the hallways. I explained my findings, and my teammates explained the proposals. There was some heated discussion, but to my surprise, some of the most vocal leaders in the community vociferously supported the proposals. One woman said that while initially she was very skeptical, now she saw it as a radical proposition and gave her full support.
It passed. I don’t remember a single “nay.”
I left Cloyne the next semester for a grad-student-only co-op (we all have our own rooms here), but I hear that the sex room is alive and well and is formally within the bylaws of the co-op. As I had predicted, someone stepped up to volunteer to clean the room. Apparently it faced a challenge from the co-op administration, to which residents responded by codifying it into the governance of the house.
So that, dear reader, is how the United States’ largest student co-op’s first formal sex room was conceived.