Let’s Change Our Underwear in Peace

Why do we expect privacy from our federal institutions and corporations but fail to demand the privacy we deserve in the bedroom?

By Henry Cantor

In the fall, I wrote a piece about how universities have standardized the use of twin XL mattresses, which I compared to “glorified hospice beds” and within the same genus as a bath towel. I argued that universities should adopt sleeping apparatuses that fit the size and needs of an adult instead of modeling beds after an airport bathroom changing table. In that same vein, I’d like to continue the discussion of outmoded norms in college housing. My next target of frustration and mockery is the lack of privacy mechanisms.

Within the last few years, UChicago has decided to make campus living increasingly uncomfortable and awkward while marketing its policies as increasingly communal and social. Not only are students randomly assigned to dorms and roommates in a process affectionately known as “blind housing,” but last year’s COVID-19 protocols resulted in residence hall and House allocations being influenced by Humanities courses. While the University has sentimentalized the sociality of these learning communities, this thinking is not ripe for a healthy social life. Now, besides having to share a bedroom with a complete stranger, you have to drop trou in front of your classmate. One minute you’re sleeping in the same shoe box of space, the next minute you’re discussing Foucault (ironically, very Foucauldian). If the University insists on making adults share a room, they should at least invest in some privacy apparatus in the bedroom—the most intimate space of any young adult.

The human right to privacy has become a battleground for public discourse, especially in the last few weeks with the Supreme Court poised to overturn abortion rights. Since the 1960s, however, by judicial interpretation, the Supreme Court found an implied right to privacy “derived from penumbras of other explicitly stated constitutional protections.” The Third Amendment protects the zone of privacy of the home; the Fourth Amendment protects the right of privacy against unreasonable searches; the Fifth Amendment justifies the protection of private information, etc.

The fundamental right to privacy has become all the more fluid in the digital age, especially considering the shifting relationships between ourselves, our personal data, and technology corporations. Just last month, at the Global Privacy Summit (GPS), Apple’s CEO Tim Cook opened the conference by imploring companies “to confront how they’ve used technological determinism to excuse poor behaviors like data collection without proper privacy or data retention policies.” He called privacy “the most essential battle of our time.”

Why do we demand privacy from federal regulations and unchecked corporations but fail to hold our universities accountable for the privacy we deserve in the bedroom? I’m not just talking about the dissolution of personal space, which is a discussion for another day. I’m talking about the trivialization of the bedroom.

The bedroom—one of the most intimate spaces of any person’s life—should be a refuge from the chaos of a college campus. This domain of physical and emotional intimacy needs to feel comfortable, safe, and most importantly, private. That said, why is there no privacy mechanism within a shared room? By that logic, why have doors on bathroom stalls?

We seldom problematize our lack of privacy in college residence halls, yet this passive acceptance surprises me. When you break down the concept, it’s frightening: “You will sleep, change, snore, and have sex either in front of, right next to, or at the very least, in the bedroom of a complete stranger. Not only that, but you’re forced to suffocate in this space until you turn twenty!” With all the gravity surrounding privacy—whether related to digital rights or bodily autonomy—I’m shocked that universities have not considered that sharing a room disrupts privacy and can be uncomfortable and indecent for students who may not have grown up attending summer camp, sharing a bedroom, or becoming accustomed to other spaces of communal living. Not every student wants to huddle in the corner of their room to put on underwear, using a towel much like Dobby uses his pillowcase to keep him from hanging brain.

My suspicion is that universities have normalized twin beds, roommates, and uncomfortable spaces in an effort to prioritize low costs. It’s easy to see, even just aesthetically, how newer dorms like Woodlawn and North feature tacky furniture and smaller rooms couched in an architecturally appealing shell. For instance, an op-ed in February offered a repudiation of the University’s newest dorm, sharing that Woodlawn’s thin walls make the space “unlivable.” This sentiment is not unique to UChicago. Last year, the University of California, Santa Barbara faced nationwide criticism over a proposed $200 million dorm building that houses 4,500 students but leaves most living in windowless rooms. Universities across the country need to better prioritize the comfort and privacy of their students rather than packing as many of us as possible into glorified cinder blocks.

To speculate on another point, we have an understanding of gender and sexuality that is beyond that of the logic that originally started the housing system. By continuing to enforce shared sleeping spaces, universities force a conflation of gender and comfort that may be inappropriate for cohabitation in 2022. An outdated perception of intimacy emerges: What repels our generation now was once considered “friendly” not too long ago. The logic which allows strangers to undress in front of one another in the dorm is the same one that traumatizes us when we go to the gym and see old men frolicking in the fluorescent lighting. Our generation doesn’t do that; instead, we hide in bathroom stalls. The University should consider the gender norms that it enforces in its assumptions of intimacy. Just because we share a bedroom with a person of the same anatomy doesn’t mean we feel safe being exposed and vulnerable in front of them.

Whether the inattention to privacy is a symptom of the University’s lack of ingenuity or complacency with ritualized practices, the University needs to understand the uncomfortable and awkward position they force students into for two years. Rather than relying solely on shaky treatises with our roommates to protect our right to privacy, we deserve something tangible and unwavering. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest a type of privacy screen, perhaps a curtain in the room, a crafty partition, or a divider. Honestly, anything to allow an adult to maintain some personal space and discretion, rather than making changing underwear a covert mission. These solutions are relatively inexpensive but necessary if the University continues forcing us to share the most intimate part of our lives with a stranger.

Though students are afforded the opportunity to request a single or an apartment on the first-year housing form, I wouldn’t bet on it. Most of us end up spending our first year sleeping a few feet away from our classmates. And though returning students can select specific rooms during the housing lottery, students who receive later time slots (in a, once again, randomized process) are forced to share their shoebox for at least one more academic year.

I hope that shared rooms will join the archive of inappropriate norms produced not by rationalization, but as offspring of an appetite for cost efficiency over comfort. In the meantime, however, the University needs to invest in the fundamental right of privacy in the only space we can call our own.

Henry Cantor is a first-year in the College.