Parietals: The Generalization of a Generation
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Sara O’Connor ’17
Snow swirled down from the darkness above on a cold Saturday night in February of 2015. The only SAA activity of the evening was the play “Hamlet,” which I had seen the night before. As a sophomore boarding student, I could not leave campus past 7:30pm on the weekend, so I felt truly stuck. I wanted to hangout with my boyfriend at the time, Ben, so I invited him over to my dorm, Hathaway House, for a relaxing “night in” as I called it. He drove to Hathaway, texted me when he arrived, and I opened the door for him. Together, we walked into the piano room in search of Ms. Dey, who was on weekend duty.
“Hi Ms. Dey! Could me and Ben get parietals, please?” I asked her, in a friendly tone with a smile, hoping that she would grant my request.
“Oh! I’m SO sorry,” Ms. Dey said as she removed her laptop from her lap and began to stand up. “I was just about to go home to have dinner and to walk the dog. But, when I get back, sure, you two can have parietals.”
Not sure what to do now, Ben and I ordered food to be delivered and ate it in the dining room, because we thought we were hogging up the space in the common room for other people. When girls in my dorm walked in and saw us eating, they would immediately turn around, thinking that they were “interrupting” or that the room was taken over by us. In reality, we simply sat at one of the three tables, completely aware we were in a public space, and completely in agreement to share the space with others. The girls assumed on their own that we wanted privacy.
An hour and a half later Ms. Dey came back, and I asked her again for parietals, and this time I walked out of the room, grabbed the wooden parietals block, and led Ben upstairs to my double on the second floor. After placing the block in the door so it stayed partially open, I picked my laundry up off the ground, grabbed my laptop and told Ben to pick out a funny movie. My room is assembled with a desk with one chair, two dressers, my fridge, and my bed. So instead of sitting on the cold hardwood flooring, Ben and I sat on my bed and leaned against the wall, our feet hanging off the side of the bed.
Sitting only a little closer than typical friends would, Ben and I would shift an extra inch away when we routinely heard Ms. Dey trekking down the hallway every 20 minutes or so, eventually knocking on the door, before peeking her head in and asking, “How’s it going?” or, “How’s the movie?”
Eventually, the movie ended and it neared the end of the designated parietals time. Ben picked up the wood block off the ground and followed me downstairs to find Ms. Dey on the red couch in the foyer.
“Hi Ms. Dey, uh Ben’s leaving!” I said. I don’t know why, but I am always awkward when I check out my guest. Ben waved and Ms. Dey said a pleasant goodbye, and after thanking her, Ben left the dorm, and I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea before heading back up to my room, where I threw my laundry back on the floor.
This scene is repeated many times in the dormitories over the course of the weekend, and even during some weekdays. Parietals have existed for as long as anyone here at Milton Academy can remember. They represent social privacy, something that can be hard to find while living at school. Awkward, fun, controversial, awesome, intimidating, and relaxing are all terms friends have used to describe parietals in the dorms. Within a culture where high school “hook-ups” are considered normal, and in an era of gender fluidity, parietals are not as simple as they sound. With many rules to be followed, questions arise regarding how much privacy the dorms actually provide for the boarding students on our campus, where their bedrooms might be the only space where they can call their own.
The Milton Academy Upper School Student Handbook supplies the community with the guidelines of hanging out within the dorms for all students. There are rules on when and where students can host guests, and the expected behavior of all students at all times. When guests can be in the common rooms and when guests can be upstairs in the bedrooms are also regulated.
The 2016-2017 handbook states that “house visiting is intended for social interaction between students, not for sexual intimacy. Students should be mindful and respectful of the rights of their housemates when using their room during visiting hours.” Guests are expected to follow all house rules to avoid disciplinary actions. Students can get parietals, or host members of the opposite sex upstairs in their bedrooms, according to the “In-Room Visitation of the Opposite Sex Guidelines.” Permission to do so must be received from the faculty member on duty, who is present in the dorm. Prior to the guest’s departure, the faculty member must be informed that the parietals are ending. Freshmen must keep their doors wide open, but for all other students, the door must be propped open with a wooden block that is about a foot long. At anytime, an adult has the right to check on the students and should be able to enter the room to see the students. The lights must be on and no furniture should be in the way. “Failure to abide by the spirit or letter will result in loss of visitation priveleges across campus and may result in further discipline.”
Yes, “privileges” is spelled wrong in the handbook this year. Hopefully next year that will change. The guidelines in the handbook seem fair at a first glance, but in reality they are very vague. There is little mention of the LGBT community, and there is no difference (except that for class IV students the door must be wide open) between your parietal experience as the student gets older and prepares for college life, where most likely there will be absolutely no rules. Has Milton always been like this?
I go to Mr. Heard to find out. Last year, Mr. Heard marched onto the stage of King Theatre to educate the upperclassmen about the changing weather we all experience as Spring dawns on us. He mentioned the air temperatures raising, the extended daylight time, as well as other spring happenings, such as the flowers blooming, and the birds migrating back. Long story short, his speech ended up being a talk about the “birds and the bees” and how the quad was not an appropriate place to engage in sexual activity.
Mr. Heard, the Associate Dean of Students, graduated from Milton as a day student in 1993. After scheduling an interview with him through Ms. Rodman, I sat on the couch in Mr. Heard’s office, while he sat in a wooden chair across from me with his legs crossed.
Ready to dive into his personal experiences as a student, I immediately asked him what his experience with parietals were.
“I never got parietals actually. I’m sure they existed in some way, shape, or form. I hung out with a lot of boarders, but they were all guys soo..,” he laughs, trailing off. I guess I had to find the history myself.
Enter Cox library, take a left and go down the stairs, and on your left you will find the dark room of the archives of Milton Academy. Shelves and paper boxes lined the walls with a large plastic table in the middle of the cement floors With the help of Ms. Pearle, I went through the archives during a Tuesday morning free period. Student handbooks and faculty handbooks dated back to 1979, with the rules and the wording within the handbooks changing over the years.
In 1789, only Class I-III could get parietals on Friday’s and Saturdays from 7pm-10:45pm. Clearly stated, “The doors must remain open.” Common room hours differed for the girls and the boys. While girls could be in the boys common rooms from 12pm to 1:30pm, boys could only visit the girls’ common rooms during the weekday from 3:15pmto 5:30pm, and after dinner for coffee. I find it interesting that the rules were different for different genders. The culture at Milton has changed, and so has the relationships between students. Goodwin never comes over to Hathway after dinner for tea parties.
Once the schools merged in 1980, the common rooms times to have guests over became much longer, and parietal hours were extended. In 1984, the student handbook reported that, “this privilege [of parietals] will begin October 1st.”
Today, as a part of administration, Mr. Heard is not against parietals, but explains that the idea of them is clearly for “social intimacy” or a “private, social place.” In the handbook, I found sexual intimacy to be first mentioned in 1991. Then, parietals were only granted to class I-III, starting October 1st, and were intended for “social privacy, not sexual intimacy.”
He mentions that there are other places to be alone to have social intimacy here at Milton besides the bedrooms. “A car ride to Dunkin, or a walk on observatory hill. Now, no one will bother you there!”
Mr. Heard is right. Take a walk around the track at night, through the baseball fields, or across the grass fields closest to the pool lot, and it is unlucky to cross paths with an acquaintance. Besides campus safety driving around at night, and occasionally shining flashlights, there is very little supervision compared to the dorm environment.
While the dorm head in Norris, Mr. Heard said that he trusted the boys in the dorm when it came to parietals. He denied parietals if he had to shower or something and could not commit to checking on the pair properly. “Never because of trust,” he adds, “because you have to trust [the students]”. But he sees that “if they are used right, we shouldn’t need to check. The whole checking kind of going against the idea of trust.” He mentions circulating around the dorm every 15 to 30 minutes, and if there were too many people getting parietals at once, Mr. Heard would tell the students to take the block from someone else and say, “Parietals are over!”
After skimming the student handbooks, I found the Upper School Faculty Handbook from 2011. At all times, there is a faculty member on duty in the dorm, who must “stay up and circulate on these nights of duty… Students should feel your presence and it may help deter undesirable activity.” What activities are undesirable? Steam rooms and indoor snowball fights are clearly undesirable, but is watching a movie in the dark? Or having a private conversation behind closed doors? But most importantly, is privacy important in a healthy relationship? Maybe the presence of a faculty member serves as an easy out or an excuse students can use if they feel uncomfortable doing something.
“How often are students in trouble for something happening during parietals? DC’s? Deans?” I asked him, eager to hear some juicy gossip.
Mr. Heard explained that students only get in trouble for not following the written rules. For example, once a girl did not ask the duty person for permission to get parietals, and “a boy in Hallowell was just standing there in the hallway. It doesn’t matter what he was doing in the hallway at that moment, what he had already done, or what his intentions were. The rules of parietals were not followed.” The parietals procedure must always be followed as exactly described in the handbook, and a violation of the rules can end in a conversation with a faculty member, with the extent of the conversations varying. But caught having sexual intimacy? Not a violation that would be brought up with the administration, but rather an issue dealt with confidentially with the health center.
All DC’s involving parietals have been “complicated,” Mr. Heard admitted,and I nodded my head in agreement because I could tell he didn’t want to get into it. “But think about those DC’s,” he jokes and we both laugh.
“Awkward,” I say, picturing Mr. Heard on the stage of King theatre once again giving an indirect sex talk.
I asked if the administration commonly talks about parietals, and if the rules were changing, but Mr. Heard insisted that this wasn’t the case. He was under the impression that they were vague and simple for a reason: “to put an emphasis on trust.” And in regards to the LGBT community on campus and trying to be inclusive, Mr. Heard spoke for the administration by saying that, “We don’t want students to have to out themselves. When you bring a student to your room we are trusting that you’re following the rules.”
The interview ended, and as I packed up my laptop in my backpack, Mr. Heard grabbed a fresh parietals block off his shelf. He explained how the rules said that the block needed to be the size of a shoe, but since everyone’s shoe size is different, it was really up for interpretation. He puts the fresh wood block down on the floor, stepped with his leather dress shoe next to it and chuckled. His shoe was almost the same length, but then again, it was Mr. Heard, and I am pretty sure he has big feet. My feet would be no match for the block.
* * *
A current senior and co- head of GASP, Finn Congdon, sat on top of the desk with me in the lobby of the ACC on a Monday afternoon in December, after our lift, but before team dinner and hockey practice. With my laptop opened to the Student Handbook, I began to read the fine print to him regarding parietals.
“We acknowledge that same gender relationships that go beyond friendship exist, and we place a certain degree of trust in our students,” I read to him, and he nodded his head quickly, as if he could recite this in his sleep.
“Thoughts?” I asked.
Finn sat up straight and without any hesitation, looked me directly in the eyes. “Well I have, I have two thoughts. On the one hand being an LGBT person, I know the experience where you kind of see it as a perk, where you feel like well, you’ve kind of gotten a tough break on everything else, so it’s nice to have this one thing where you can form relationships… But on the other hand,” Finn sighed, and then laughed, “I also know that that is not that healthy, with the idea that you’re constantly sneaking around, which is unpleasant on it’s own, but then along with that idea that you’re fooling the school…Ya know…You could face serious disciplinary actions.”
I asked him if he knows if students in non-heteronormative relationships ask for parietals, and Finn shook his head. “Why would you?!” He smirked as he said it.
“Honestly, when I’ve been in relationships at this school,” he laughed as he puts his head down, “I’ve never asked for parietals. I don’t have to. I mean I haven’t dated a border since sophomore year, but back then—” Finn jumped off the desk, put his arms in the air and bounced up and down. “—I was like, ‘this is greeeaaaatttt!!”
Both smiling now, I asked him if he thought that the rules of parietals in the dorms should be changed, and he undoubtedly said yes, and immediately explained himself. “The whole gender basis of this stuff is really really gender normative, which isn’t really useful because a lot of people are coming out non-binary to the gender binary or transgender, all these sorts of things.” Finn suggests that all students should sign in at the dorm if they are going upstairs, regardless of your identity and your intentions.
The GASP community regularly holds affinity meetings, which are completely confidential. Acknowledging the privacy of students, I asked him if he was allowed to share with me if the topic of parietals comes up in these meetings.
“Yeah. It is definitely a topic that comes up. It always worries me a little bit because I know I hear a lot of my younger students celebrating queer perks. ‘Oh we don’t actually have to sign into each others dorms,’ or anything like that, which worries me, because you know as someone who’s older, I would like to see that they’re being safe in their relationships.”
Speaking of safety, Milton trains teams of select students involved in ISS (Independent Student Support) and SECS (Students Educating the Community about Sex). The health center distributes condoms to representatives of both groups in an effort to promote sexual safety. Students can voluntarily take an HS&R class (Human Sexuality & Relationships), which is led by SECS leaders. Milton vocally promotes safe sex and safe relationships, yet there are no private spaces to engage in a healthy relationship on campus.
Finn turned the conversation towards the administration, as he believed Ms. Collins and Ms. Barger have brought the topic of parietals and heteronormative dorm cultures up with them. Students typically turn to the counseling office at the health center with their issues as opposed to the administration.
“We actually spent an entire day in GASP just discussing parietals, and what we can do to change it to make it more inclusive and more actually useful to the entire student body, as opposed to the majority of the student body,” Finn continues.
Finn explained that the dorms at Milton are very heteronormative, describing some of his male friends as being “incredibly uncomfortable” with the “toxic masculinity that happens in boys dorms.” He explained toxic masculinity as having a lot of hetoersexual and sexual things tossed around, that makes queer guys sometimes feel unsafe. On the other hand, Finn says that he has a non-binary friend in a girls dorm, and that she struggles less because of sexual talk, and more because of objectifications from the girls.
“It’s more the idea that a gender is being forced upon them, which isn’t necessarily healthy. And I know we talked in GASP about the ability to elect to live in a small gender neutral dorm, which we thought would be a good idea, but if that ever happens, it’s years away.”
The solution? Finn thinks we need to educate everyone about what it means to be LGBTQIA+ and the type of relationships there are. He also mentions that relationships can be “a lot safer when adults are someeeewhat involved.” He cringes as he goes on, “You should know if there are people coming into your dorm.”
We know how parietals at Milton work, but what about the other boarding schools in New England? An article entitled Prep School Parietals, published in December of 2013 in the Lawrence Paper, explained the different rules for parietals and the cultures at other schools.
At the Hill School in Pennsylvania, they do not offer any type of parietals, or any contraception for that matter, and only have certain common rooms where you can hangout with the opposite sex. Caught engaging in sexual intimacy and you can be expelled, which seems irrational.
At Lawrenceville, the rules of their parietals change with age, allotting more times as you are older, but the school, “believes that students ‘are not prepared to deal with the possible consequences of intimate sexual activity.’” Disciplinary consequences can follow if caught doing anything sexual. Rules becoming more flexible with time make sense, as students are gaining maturity. Stricter rules could cause students to feel like they are living in a prison, but at the same time looser rules could potentially encourage a rape culture that many boarding school students have openly spoke out about.
Deerfield Academy offers typical parietals on Friday and Saturday evenings. Unlike Milton, they also offer study parietals for groups of upperclassmen that happen after check-in. The author of the article suggests that “this additional privilege may suggest that regular parietals are for anything but studying, yet it also creates a time for intellectual boy-girl interaction, free of the ‘pretense’ of those overbearing hormones.” I personally have never witnessed anyone in my dorm get parietals for any academic reason. Once while studying in the noisy common room of Goodwin with my brother, I suggested that we go to his room so we could finish our problem set. If we were at home, this would be completely normal, but instead I received a dirty look and a, “are you kidding me?”
Similar to Deerfield, Milton may have had a second parietal option in the past. During the 1995-1996 academic school year students had the privilege of “Open In- Room Visitation.” During the week from 6:30pm and 7:15 pm (between sit down dinner and proctored study hall), any student could visit another student’s room without asking for parietals. Open in- room visitation existed in the handbooks I found until 2006.
Bringing up the topic of age, Phillips Andover delays freshmen parietals until after the fall, and they can only visit other freshmen during the weekdays. In the spring, they are allowed in the bedrooms on Sundays. Today, Milton neglects to mention age when it comes to parietals, but age is an important factor in a relationship. Up until 1991, only class I-III could get parietals. At the discretion of the househeads, class IV could get parietals starting in 1992. In Massachusetts, the age of consent is 16 years old. This means legally, you cannot consent to any sexual activity until you are 16, but after that you are in charge in what you want to do with your own body. Sexual intimacy is a personal decision.
Finally at the most liberal of the schools mentioned, St. Paul’s, students have to check in with a teacher, but then can close their doors during parietals! The check out times vary, with seniors having the latest check out time. For the most part, the hours of parietals are not longer than 3 hours, so students cannot spend the entire day behind the closed doors. Milton may have longer hours, but St. Paul’s clearly gives students more privacy.
* * *
South Shore Plaza bound, I drove while my mom relaxed in the passenger seat as we cruised up route 3 on Black Friday. I listened to the faint sound of basic pop music coming through the speakers as my mom looked down at her phone. I couldn’t really see, as I was focused on driving, but she was probably scrolling through her Twitter feed, which in reality is a bunch of Tom Brady fan accounts.
“Do you know what parietals are?” I asked her, casually, feeling a little awkward because of the stigma around parietals. I was not trying to have a sex talk.
My mom put her phone down, and sat up straighter in the seat. With a hint of sass in her voice she assured me that yes, she knew all about parietals. I felt dumb for asking. My mom sent her only two children, me and my twin brother Stevie, to Milton, and she is pretty involved with the school. She has been my grade’s parent boarding representative on the parents’ association for our 4 years, and she is always, always, stopping by to deliver laundry and food, to watch our sports games, or to just say hi. Needless to say, my mom is pretty up-to-date with all the happenings here at Milton, and of course she knew what parietals were.
I laughed, and continued to ask her if she was comfortable with the idea that we can get parietals in the dorms whenever we want. “Yes, Sara. I am comfortable. What is this about?” my mom asked.
I felt my mom jumping to the assumption that, due to my questions, I must have a boyfriend or must be “hooking up” with someone. Earlier this year, Te Palandjian investigated the “hookup” culture here at Milton. She reported that the “general read is that Milton Academy students, ‘don’t date,’ ‘discourage emotional attachment,’ and ‘scrutinize opposite-sex friendships.’” After my 4 years here, I could not have said it better. The amount of times I have overheard in the hallway, “Oh no, they’re just hooking up” is almost absurd. Students here begin relationships based on a physical connection, as opposed to an emotional one. Could Milton help students create relationships by giving students a private place to connect?
My mom has made many friends at Milton over the years- some teachers, some coaches, and even some students, but mostly the other parents. When I asked her if all parents were as relaxed about it as she was, she went on to say that she didn’t think so. Part of the reason that my mom never cared was that she was at Milton frequently. My mom thinks that for some parents who come from a distance and who aren’t as familiar with the other students and teachers on campus, that they might have some concerns. As Milton trusts their students, my mom trusts Milton.
“For some families, there might be a religious aspect to their views, and I can see how many parents could be against the notion of,” she said, using air quotes, “their daughter for example, ‘having a boy in her room,’ especially when they are younger.” She also mentioned how students grow up a tremendous amount between their freshman and senior years.
Interested in the religious aspect she mentioned, I found that many Catholic colleges and universities across the country have visitation rules and guidelines. In Catholicism, all sexual activity is reserved for marriage, and engaging in such activity is a sin. In a world where this is simply not the norm, we see college campuses today having a strong sexual hook-up culture. Even at Catholic universities that hold parietal rules, the culture exists. According to Crisis Magazine, “On weekends, 95 percent of Catholic colleges permit at least a portion of the students (usually non-freshmen when specified) to visit with members of the opposite sex in dorm rooms for at least some part of the night. It’s the norm in American higher education, but it’s an extraordinary social shift for Catholic colleges that still retain the language of moral formation and Catholic campus living.” Some of these policies can be controversial with the religion, making parietals in college a discussed topic.
Most universities and colleges though, do not have any rules regarding who is in a student’s room, making parietals in high school almost like a sneak peak into college life. The culture at liberal arts schools is quite different. Dorms are mostly co-ed, and all students can use any bathroom they want. Recently, when I did an overnight at a local New England liberal arts school, I was shocked when I was brushing my teeth and a guy came in, waved, and proceeded to use the urinal. I always bragged to my day students friends that I would be so much better prepared than them as a boarder when it came to transitioning to college, but now I say that with less confidence. In just 8 months, the majority of my grade will be moving into their colleges, where there could be no restrictions. Should seniors here be held to a more flexible interpretation of the parietals rule, in order to better prepare for college? After all, we are a college prepatory school.
I finally told my mom why I was asking these questions, and how I was exploring the idea of privacy here at Milton. She revealed that she thinks that the students deserve more privacy in general at school. From personal experience, my mom knows that it can be hard living with a roommate constantly, and sometimes if you are not in a single room, it leaves the question of where students go to cry, to sleep, or to laugh with a friend, when the environment in their room does not permit it. She finds the atmosphere to be “extremely stressful” at times, and sees the privilege of parietals as a stress relief and a way to wind down, but also as a stressful time because of the lack of privacy.
“I actually think that the rules in the boys dorm are not as enforced, but I know the rules are different for each dorms. Some boys have no privacy whatsoever, including freedom of speech, while some dorms allow too much openness and trouble ensues…” her voice trailed off, and now that she knew I will be quoting her, I think she held back. “I believe there is much more consistency in the girls’ dorms.”
I pulled into a parking space in the back of the mall at the Nordstrom entrance, and as my mom reached into the back to grab her purse, I asked her one final question: Does she think that the rules should be changed? She reiterated once again that there is a huge difference between the needs of a freshmen and a senior, and that the school should talk to the students to find out what their individual needs are. “Everyone is entitled to some form of privacy,” my mom strongly emphasized.
Clearly, the culture at Milton Academy is every changing, and so should our policies. Kids communicate differently and LGBTQ communities are flourishing. Parietals almost feel like a generalization of our generation. Too much is assumed when it comes to parietals. Our genders, our intentions, and our ethics are all assessed. Are we sheltering what is being reported as the most sensitive generation yet?
And now back to my wild sophomore year. It was 9:30pm on a school night, and I had just finished study hall when Ben drove up and parked in front of Hathaway. He had just gotten back from a college visit and wanted to give me the t-shirt he bought for me. I hopped in the passenger seat of his car and we chatted for a couple minutes, until he gave me a hug along with the t-shirt. With a grip on the door handle, I was about open the door to go back inside when I felt my the pocket of my sweatpants vibrate. My stomach dropped and I wanted to cry. “Sara. It’s Ms.RK. You have not chosen the appropriate place to spend time with Ben and are making people uncomfortable. Please re-think this choice,” the text read. I froze and Ben urged me to go inside right away and apologize, so I did. I cannot imagine how red my face was when I entered Ms.RK’s house. I felt awful and embarrassed, but also mad at the same time. Although I may forget what Ms. RK said, I’ll never forget running to Oceana, a senior at the time, who gave me a hug and told me, “Sara, this is a typical teenage thing. It’s normal, and it happens all the time.”
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