Let’s talk about sex

Raquel Ronzone

Perhaps American actor John Barrymore said it best: “Sex is the thing that takes up the least amount of time and causes the most amount of trouble.” Around the world, discussions of the private act are moving into the public forum, revealing the diverse and often conflicting opinions on the subject.

In the United States, sex and condom usage have particularly interested religious groups, who see the modern culture of casual, premarital intimacy among young people – otherwise known as the “hook-up” culture – as a direct challenge to their values. Not surprisingly, the debate about sex and safe sex practices has found prime breeding ground in faith-based colleges throughout the country, where the demographic consists overwhelmingly of young adults and where religious values shape the government of those academic institutions. Consequently, Christian universities face a profound dilemma: maintaining and promoting the religion’s ideals of premarital abstinence and life-long chastity, while acknowledging the frequent reality of sex among their Christian and non-Christian students.

Nationwide, university students are contributing to the ongoing dialogue on the issue, expressing their viewpoints quite publicly. In 2004, La Roche College, a Catholic institution in Pittsburgh, confiscated copies of the school newspaper because a student editor’s opinion column suggested that condoms and other contraceptives could prevent unwanted pregnancies. According to “Catholics for a Free Choice,” college authorities said that they were hosting prospective students and did not want to confuse them with a column that conflicted with school policy and Catholic values.

More recently, in March of 2009, authorities at Stonehill College, a private Catholic school in Massachusetts, reprimanded a senior who offered free condoms to peers by placing boxes of condoms in student dormitories. One month later, a senior at Washington, D.C.’s Jesuit-and Catholic-rooted Georgetown University took a decidedly contradictory stance. He published an opinion column that defended and applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that condoms are not only an ineffective solution to Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic but also a potential aggravator of the problem.

The oldest and largest Catholic university in Pennsylvania, Villanova University is also contributing to the conversation. Last semester, the school hosted “He Said … She Said,” a presentation that featured a panel of specialists from the Student Health Center, the peer education group POWER, the Office of Student Life and the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia answered student-submitted questions about relationships, sexual health and pregnancy. Kimberly Hill, the coordinator of Peer Educator Programs in the Office of Health Promotion, organized the event in order to raise awareness of the issues and to spread accurate, meaningful information to students.

Hill and the other staff members work in the Office of Health Promotion, which functions as an educational center for the student body. It coordinates learning events, awareness weeks, peer programs, individual consultations and media campaigns in order to equip students with the resources to make appropriate choices for healthy lifestyles, as its homepage states. Furthermore, the Office of Health Promotion addresses health holistically, targeting its six components: the spiritual, physical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and social aspects.

Although its ultimate goal is also to ensure the students’ complete well-being, the university’s Student Health Center focuses strictly on the physical health of students. Working as a medical provider of sexual health, it offers annual gynecologic exams, evaluation and treatment of STIs and other infections and pregnancy testing. Examinations there are free, but students must pay for any laboratory tests or prescribed medicine, the website notes.

True to its Catholic, Augustinian heritage, the Student Health Center at the school does not offer materials that prevent conception or literature that encourages termination of pregnancies.

It is this last point – the absence of contraceptives, particularly condoms, on campus – that students concerned about sexual health most readily associate with the Student Health Center, says Stacy Andes, the director of Health Promotion. But students, Christian or not, understand that Villanova University’s religious identity forbids the distribution of condoms, she says.

Still, focusing on the availability of condoms often blinds students to the other – perhaps more important – resources that the Office of Health Promotion and the Student Health Center do offer, she says. Villanova is “progressive” in comparison to other colleges in offering so many resources and opportunities for education concerning sexual health, according to Hill.

College students do need such education, judging by the results of the National College Health Assessment, provided by the American College Health Association. The countrywide research survey collects data about a number of topics, such as drug use, sexual and mental health, nutrition, fitness and violence, from hundreds of colleges with and without religious affiliation.

Citing concerns of privacy and protection of identity, Andes said that she was not able to disclose Villanova’s figures in the NCHA. She did acknowledge, however, that the following nationwide averages were comparable to the school’s averages: about 5 percent of students mostly or always used a condom with oral sex, about 50 percent mostly or always used a condom with vaginal sex and about 25 percent used the withdrawal method as a form of birth control.

The last statistic demonstrates the need for greater education about birth control methods and safe sex practices, she said. Withdrawal does not protect sexual partners from either STIs or HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, it is not always a reliable contraceptive. Performed correctly all of the time, it is 96 percent effective in preventing pregnancy; performed incorrectly, it is 73 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, according to the Web site of Planned Parenthood.

Such a lack of understanding about healthy sexual activity among college students can lead to a false sense of security, Andes says, explaining that it is the responsibility of the Office of Health Promotion to combat the stigma of sex, to engage students in discussions of sexual health and to fill in the gaps left by inaccurate information.

Associate Vice President for Student Life Kathy Byrnes agrees. She says that information and awareness could lead to healthy decision-making about sexual activity. Moreover, she says, the Office of Health Promotion is responsible to recognize the religious – and, by extension, moral – diversity at Villanova while still adhering to Christian values in the treatment of students’ issues of intimacy.

Although it contributes to total well-being, sexuality is not everything, Byrnes says.

“I feel like the sexual teachings of the Church are always put in the limelight,” she says, adding that sexuality is of equal or lesser importance than other aspects of Christian identity. An essential part of being Christian, she says, is openness to dialogue.

“I tend to vote for openness,” she says but also expresses the need for more forums for dialogue on campus.

“We’re making some headway, but we have a lot of work to do.”