How sex fits in at a Catholic university

Kelly Skahan

“S exuality … is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”So says the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the document most cited as an expression of the Church’s official doctrine. While the Catechism does discuss beliefs on the sacraments and Ten Commandments, it is most often discussed for its stance on controversial subjects such as homosexuality, evolution and indifferentism. The debate that is perhaps the most relevant to life as a college student, though, is over that of premarital sex.It’s no secret that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to sexual activity outside the context of marriage, a policy that has been challenged as outdated and unrealistic throughout much of recent history. Such disputes, however, have been met by an unwavering Church, unwilling to change its policy on sex regardless of the circumstances and arguments raised against it.This policy raises a particular challenge for Catholic universities: how can a school convey the teachings of the Church while realistically providing for the sexual health of its students? As a result, the services provided for students at religious schools often go unnoticed, an issue that Villanova’s Office of Health Promotion has been focusing on this semester.In September, the release of a study by the makers of Trojan condoms made the problem all the more apparent. Titled “The 2007 Sexual Health Report Card,” the study documented the sexual health resources at 139 colleges and universities, representing each state as well as each NCAA Division I athletic conference. The company surveyed student health center Web sites for information on the availability of several sexual health resources, including awareness programs, the availability of condoms and contraception, HIV and STI testing, hours of operation, appointment availability, usability of Web site, anonymous advice columns, lecture programs, student peer groups and sexual assault prevention programs.Villanova’s performance in the survey highlighted misperceptions of what is and is not provided at Catholic schools. Out of 139 schools in the study, Villanova was ranked 135th, with other Catholic universities, including Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College, ranked 99th, 115th and 120th, respectively, with much of the blame placed on the inability of a Catholic school to realistically provide for its students. The low ranking prompted an investigation by the Office of Heath Promotion regarding what Villanova actually offers in terms of sexual health education, and results were surprising.Located on the first floor of the Health Services Building, the Office of Health Promotion’s goal is to give students the information, resources and opportunities they need to make healthy decisions and maintain a balance of mind, body and spirit. They offer various programs, including student groups, events and activities, as well as providing information by way of meetings with office staff, pamphlets and flyers. Perhaps the most easily accessible information is available on its Web site (, which makes available summaries of STI risk reduction, sexual assault resources and, most notably, resources for students considering their sexual practices.After examining the services the University offered students, the Office of Health Promotion found that only condoms and contraception and anonymous advice columns were unavailable on campus. All of the other resources assessed in the survey were provided by Villanova, often without charge, raising questions about the validity of Trojan’s survey.”When we re-assessed the survey, it really didn’t give any specifics,” says Stacy Andes, the director of Villanova’s Office of Health Promotion. “They say researchers were investigating health centers, but they don’t tell you who these researchers are or what their methods were.”Another issue, Andes says, was Web site organization. While Trojan’s researchers surveyed health center Web sites for services provided, Villanova’s sexual health resources are listed on the Web site for the Office of Health Promotion, conveying to researchers that the University provided few services when they are, in fact, very much up to par.The Office of Health Promotion was never contacted by Trojan for information regarding their services, and Trojan declined to comment on the survey when contacted by The Villanovan.Andes stresses the fact that although Villanova’s Health Services remain true to their Augustinian heritage, it doesn’t hesitate to provide students with information regarding sexual health.”Overall, we offer nearly all of the resources this survey was looking for,” she says. “But a lot of the time there’s a lack of familiarity with the services among students.”This lack of familiarity is an issue the Office of Health Promotion hopes to change, highlighting their efforts with a campaign called “Go to Health,” which aims to raise student awareness of the office’s Web site and the services it provides. “We want to share information without bias,” Andes says, explaining that though the office reflects Villanova’s Catholic heritage, it will answer questions, provided students are willing to ask.”If someone asks us a question about protection and health, we’ll answer it, and we’ll always refer students to their healthcare provider and recommend resources, but first we always want to go back to the issue of responsibility,” she says.Andes explains that the goals of the Office of Health Promotion, particularly finding the balance of a healthy mind, body and spirit, requires students to asses their sexual decisions and preparation long before they’re put in a situation where they’ll have to act.”We want students to understand that sexual protection is more than using a condom,” Andes says. “We want them to feel good about their decisions and for those decisions to be healthy ones, so we ask them to reevaluate their plans once they have the information they need.”Andes explains that the office asks students to take into account all the factors of their relationships before they make any sexual decisions.”There are a lot of factors other than STIs that people need to consider,” she says. “Relationships and their emotional consequences often have a far more long-lasting result than an infection, and we want them to consider that before they act.”One of the main proponents of this policy is the idea of “postponement.” Instead of using the word “abstinence,” which Andes says alienates many students, “postponement” allows students, even those who have been sexually active in the past, to reassess their decisions while still allowing for all possibilities. The office’s Web site provides a list of activities other than sex that foster a similar connection for couples who want to take the next step in their relationship, explaining that “a ‘no’ to sexual activity can also be a ‘yes’ to deeper communication and mutual appreciation.”Overall, Andes says that the office aims to help students remain healthy in all aspects of their lives.”We want to send students in the right direction, and we invite them to reevaluate their decisions once they have the right information. Students can count on the Health Promotion staff to provide accurate information in a way that respects the dignity and decisions of each individual,” she says.