By Write(H)ers participant Erin Sweeney, T'13
Boston College refuses to allow students, administrators, or health providers to distribute condoms, does not mention any other method besides abstinence as an effective means to prevent STI’s and HIV/AIDS on their website, and will only prescribe oral contraceptives to women who claim that they are taking the pill for “other reasons” besides birth control.
Boston College Students for Sexual Health (BCSSSH) is an unofficial student group that formed in 2009 to provide students with information that many feel they would not, or could not, otherwise receive at a Catholic institution. BCSSH hands out condoms on the sidewalk of College Road (or CoRo, as it is more commonly known), which is owned by the city of Newton, and not Boston College. BCSSH has also created “Safe Sites,” a network of dorm rooms and other common spaces on campus where condoms and pamphlets are available for free.
Although many would claim condom distribution is antithetical to Catholic doctrine, student representatives of BCSSH say that the administration had never directly asked them to halt distribution until March 15, when BCSSH received a sort-of “cease and desist” letter that BCSSH chairwoman Lizzie Jekanowski characterized as “bizzarely, vaguely threatening.” The letter, signed by Dean of Students Paul Chebator and Director of Residence Life George Arey, reads: “While we understand that you may not be intentionally violating university policy, we do need to advise you that should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the university.”
The school’s policies are in line with what Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the college, calls “our Catholic commitments.” However, Dunn says that BC does not prevent students from purchasing condoms off campus, or take disciplinary action against students who use condoms. Is BC’s policy of allowing students to use condoms in private, but not encouraging that decision in public, enough to ensure that students make healthy, affirming sexual choices?
The answer is no. First, consider the context. Over 70 percent of BC students identify as Catholic, a statistic that is important for two reasons: 1) it is rational to assume that many BC students went to Catholic primary and secondary schools, where they did not receive comprehensive sexual education that included lessons on contraception; 2) that 30 percent of students are not Catholic, and therefore might feel alienated, confused, or frustrated by the school’s attitudes toward contraception.
Second, consider the message. BC is basically telling students, “Hey, we know that research says that 99 percent of practicing Catholics use some form of birth control, but we are choosing to ignore reality in order to perpetuate an antiquated ideology.” The administration is also rejecting the fact that we know more about effective contraception methods and STI prevention than ever before, and that students have a right to access that information, even if they choose not to have sex. Since BC chose to ignore, and therefore passively accept, BCSSH’s activities since 2009, the fact that they are reversing their position makes them appear aggressive and hypocritical.
Third, consider the greater Catholic mission. Jekanowski said it best: “We see it as very intrinsic of being a Jesuit that we provide these resources and we affirm the whole person,” she said. “Students shouldn’t have to choose between holistic health care and a world class institution.”
Why should Duke students, or more generally, students who do not attend Catholic institutions, care about the BC condom controversy?
One on hand, it’s easy to dismiss this incident as just another one of the Catholic Church’s antiquated political schemes. It’s tempting to say, “Well, BC students know that they are attending a Catholic institution, and agreed to adhere to the school’s rules and doctrines when they signed their acceptance offers.” However, both of these perspectives delegitimize Catholic students’ demands for comprehensive sex education.
College students everywhere undergo a number of paradigm shifts and transformative experiences, and students at BC or other Catholic colleges are no different. Just because the students signed an agreement to uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith does not mean that BC’s students cannot, or should not, challenge those tenets while they are in school. We should applaud BCSSH for standing up for what they believe in, even though it might be unpopular with the administration or the campus as a whole.