These (Dorm) Walls Are Paper Thin

By: Mark Hay

The heady penchant for gossip I have today comes directly from the pipes in my freshman dorm room. Whether by design or by accident, several openings in the rooms down the hall carried voices down the vents and dumped the locked-door lives of several of my floor mates right into my room. Usually that’s a banal feature—listening to you watch 30 Rock reruns is rarely engaging. But then there was the sex. In the middle of the day and the middle of the night, in a chatty dorm, there’s always the sex—sometimes annoying, sometimes exciting, and sometimes instructive, but unavoidable for all of us.

It starts innocuously enough with a sitcom-ish thump-thump against the wall. But soon enough you start picking up the moans and the safe words from down the hall. The speed, intensity, and frequency of taps and slams and the vocalizations accompanying turn into a type of Morse code that gives you unparalleled access into the id of your neighbors. You hear the progression from scratchy clothes and chaste fun into the first sexual encounters of your peers.

Though I doubt it is a conspiracy of the utilities companies or a practical joke of architects, residential colleges are almost all inherently voyeuristic places. Tight quarters, thin walls, communal showers, and a slew of freshly independent and overexcited teens force any student to some degree to accept and engage with sexuality. When I shared this thought with Lux Alptraum, the CEO of “sexy things” news site, she agreed wholeheartedly, adding that, even for someone coming from a sex positive background (as she did) or for someone already sexually aware and active, the college experience can really redefine sexuality.

Lux, like many of us, grew up knowing sexually active friends and knowing gay friends, lesbian friends, and trans-friends. But for her, as for so many, the increased level of conversation about sex and the variety pack of sexual identities and preferences experienced so directly in college open students up to a whole new level of sexual engagement. Many of her experiences in college led her to explore the world of online sex and sexuality and helped lead her to her current position in the world of sexy news.

The voyeurism is inescapable. But whether one chooses to accept and embrace that voyeurism or to turn against it is another issue completely. We have three choices when we hear flesh slapping against the wall or a moan drifting out of the vents. Most often, we ignore it—perhaps buy noise-canceling headphones and kill a few frequencies drowning out the sex with “Sexy Back.” Less often, we get angry. Either because we are alone or because we are uncomfortable, we pound on the wall, report the noise to RAs, or just give the evil eye to the filthy party down the hall. But sometimes we embrace the voyeurism inherent in our college experience and use it as a doorway for our own pleasure and pleasure-based edification.

The last option seems downright creepy. It’s not smiled upon to listen intently in on the rumbling and banging next door. But it may be the best option. Your neighbors get to have their fun and they never have to know what you derive from it. And, more than anything erotic or pornographic directly, the forced encounter with voyeurism can open the door to conversations with friends and educators, or even just inner monologues, to help one explore sexuality like never before and never again.

Voyeurism will never be so easy as it is in college, and through it few of us will have the opportunity to engage with and think critically about sex in such a diverse and open environment. Those who will live a life open to that in the future are fortunate, but sadly a minority. So while the time and the space permit it, it’s best not to sequester one’s self from the hanky panky all around—even worse to get angry about it. Instead, the best response to college voyeurism is to embrace it. Take off the headphones, let what comes from the vents come. Listen as you will—intently or passively. And take from it what you will—lessons, conversation, or just the pleasure of easy voyeurism.

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