When Cara Peterson moved into her freshman dorm room at the University of Vermont last fall, the 18-year-old from Falmouth, Mass., brought her new bedspread, a mini fridge and high hopes that she'd get along with her roommate.
Shortly after Peterson met her 17-year-old roommate from St. Albans, a third person introduced himself: the roommate's boyfriend. "He shakes my hand and says, 'You're going to be seeing a lot of me,'" Peterson recalled.
That turned out to be all too true.
The 25-year-old boyfriend — who was not a student at UVM — essentially moved into the room, according to Peterson, and she found herself "sexiled" from the dorm room that cost her family about $8,000. Peterson made friends with a girl across the hall and spent many nights in her room. "It was either do that or sleep in the room with them, and that would be too weird," Peterson said.
Vermont's state university offers dozens of majors and hundreds of classes, but Peterson says it falls short in teaching about one of the trickiest challenges of college life: sexual etiquette. In particular, education about sharing rooms and dealing with sexual situations that arise, she said: "They don't teach you how to deal with it or come up with a plan."
Her situation was so overwhelming that it nearly ruined her UVM experience. "With school and everything, I couldn't focus. I felt really unsafe in my room, really uncomfortable," Peterson said.
In mid-October 2014, after weeks of frustration and sleep deprivation, Peterson received approval from the university to move into a single room. Despite the rough start, she grew to like UVM and will return to dorm life as a sophomore this week.
Across Vermont, colleges are opening their residence halls to thousands of new and returning students. As they move in, students explore new people, freedoms and living arrangements. But it's not always easy for young adults to navigate through differences that emerge.
"It's all new, and it can be really challenging and sometimes overwhelming," noted UVM vice provost for student affairs Annie Stevens. "But we do our best to try to set up a positive situation among the roommates to work those things through."
UVM has resident advisers — undergraduate students who live in the dorms and are paid to help enforce the rules. These RAs are asked to meet with students on every floor. They encourage roommates to create a written agreement that establishes rules regarding things like noise, cleanliness and visitors — including the amorous kind.
In Peterson's case, she attempted to come to an agreement with her roommate, who initially agreed to limit her boyfriend's visits. But that agreement was ignored when the boyfriend had nowhere else to go.
In addition to roommate contracts, UVM has a guest policy: no more than two consecutive nights in a seven-day period, and roommate permission is required. If there are conflicts, RAs are supposed to mediate. But according to Peterson, her RA was no help, and it "didn't seem to matter to her that [the boyfriend] was not a student, not paying room and board, and had nowhere else to stay."
If the problem persists, administrators in Residential Life — ResLife for short — are available, Stevens said. Indeed, it was only after parents' weekend, when Peterson's mom and dad saw how upset and exhausted their daughter was, that anything changed. They called ResLife, and soon Peterson had permission to move into a single dorm room.
Things improved after that, Peterson said, but she retains bad memories of beginning her freshman year. "It was very awkward and very weird," Peterson said. "You're 18 years old. How do you handle this?"
Her roommate declined to be interviewed and asked that Seven Days not use her name.
Stevens said she couldn't speak to the specifics of Peterson's situation but agreed that it was against university rules for a nonstudent to move into a dorm. "That shouldn't be happening," she said.
As for the sexiling trend? "I know the term, but I couldn't tell you the scope or the magnitude of how often that happens," Stevens said. Conflicts over significant others overstaying their welcome do occur, she said, but most of the time they are resolved.
Dormitory sexual etiquette is tricky, agreed Lizzie Post, author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington and a 2005 graduate of the University of Vermont. "Intimacy is usually a private thing, and you're sharing a room with someone," she said.
What does the etiquette expert suggest? Confront the awkwardness, and talk about when sex in the room is OK and not OK. The goal is to come up with a system that respects everyone's comfort level and values, Post said. For example, one rule may be no sex in the room on "school nights."
Also, Post added, accept that someone might break the rules at least once — and it could be you and your love interest. "Let's face it. You're in your room, you guys are studying together, and the next thing you know it's a hot-and-heavy moment and you've forgotten to lock the door," Post suggested. If the roommate walks in at a bad time and leaves quickly in embarrassment, talk about it later. Don't let anger grow, Post said. And don't pretend the situation didn't happen. "Apologize for the discomfort, remind [the roommate] that you do know what to do in the future and then do it," Post said. "That's important."
What about when your roommate has sex without caring that you're in the room?
Some people might be OK with plugging in their headphones and listening to loud music. Others would choose to sexile themselves out of the room.
"Personally, I would just get up and go to, like, the common room or something," Post said. "It stinks, but you have to remember that you do always have the option of leaving the situation."
Protect your own comfort level, whatever it may be, she said. And in the morning, feel free to say "Listen, dude, I should not have had to wake up and leave the room so you could have sex."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Discomfort Zone"