- GU draws the condom line. (Photo: Associated Press)
Last spring, a group of Georgetown students taped their mouths shut, chained themselves to a statue of GU founder John Carroll, and demanded sexual health services at the Jesuit university. Dubbed “Plan A,” the students advocated for condoms in dorms, rape kits at the Georgetown University Hospital, and contraception on the university health plan. Three students spent eight hours locked to Carroll to get the message to administrators: “Take the tape off our mouths and the chains off our bodies.”
One year later, GU is no closer to lifting the chains, but it is considering pulling off that tape.
Last month, the university confirmed plans to implement a new sexual education program that would allow student educators to spread information and dispel misconceptions about sex (even the premarital kind) to fellow co-eds. Taking the university’s lead, student health advocates at GU have moved on to Plan B: They’re abandoning their tangible demands in exchange for the right to speak openly about sex.
Just how freely student advocates will be authorized to gab remains to be seen. “We have only had preliminary conversations about developing a program and are committed to helping our students lead healthy lives in support of our educational mission as a Catholic and Jesuit University,” university director of media relations Rachel Pugh told me via e-mail. “I don't have any more information to share at this time.”
The university won't elaborate on how it plans to reconcile its Catholic mission with its students’ sexual one. But talking about talking about sex is a step forward for Georgetown. In years past, the Jesuit institution has traditionally shied from so much as acknowledging the thousands of unmarried students who copulate on its property. (In a recent campus survey, 23 percent of Georgetown students rated the school’s sex ed curriculum “nonexistent”). “Our big concern is the question of what exactly is allowed to be discussed,” says Jared Watkins, a graduating senior who has participated in closed-door meetings on the sexual health initiative since last fall. “Even among university folks, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about what can and cannot be said.”
The very idea of Georgetown entering the sex ed has caused a stir in the Catholic establishment. Catholic school watchdog group the Cardinal Newman society—which previously dinged GU for producing the Vagina Monologues and hosting a non-conforming school dance—is already monitoring the initiative. Catholic commentators have flocked to student newspaper The Hoya to express their disapproval. One said the university has fallen “into the trap of needing to be ‘safe & informed’, the sexual swamp, that pervades modern society, creating persons incapable of forming lasting relationships, and the debasement of the human person.” Another said that the program would serve “the emotionally and spiritually broken persons made incapable of true love by a history of promiscuity.”
Even the student activists pushing for the program are surprised the university is listening. “The university does have some Draconian policies as far as sexual health goes,” says David Schwartz, a GU junior who helped organize Plan A last year and has since attended several of the initial sex ed planning meetings. “It’s a pretty interesting development that the university wants to work with us on this.”
Things will get more interesting when Georgetown begins to hash out its conception of Catholic sexual education. Below, the major battle lines yet to be drawn:
HORMONAL BIRTH CONTROL. “The line we’ve heard in the past is ‘education, not advocacy.’ Students and the university are allowed to educate about artificial birth control, but not advocate for it,” Watkins says. “That’s a really blurry and confusing line. And I think both students and folks in health education services are confused about it"
CONDOMS. Administering rubbers under GU’s name is a long-established no-no: H*yas for Choice, a student reproductive rights group that distributes condoms in the campus “Free Speech Zone,” is forbidden from claiming the “o” in its name. But what about informing students where they can find condoms? “I don’t think that's a main issue. I don’t think that students are worried about where they can find condoms close to campus,” Schwartz says. “We have a CVS within walking distance of the front gates.” Ahem.
ABSTINENCE: Watkins says he doesn’t believe the university is “seriously” considering requiring students to discuss “the rhythm method and other not-very-effective birth control techniques.” But will student educators be required to expound upon the benefits of 100-percent-effective not-doing-it when they provide “education, not advocacy” about other contraceptive methods? “I don’t think they’ll try to push abstinence-only education,” says Schwartz, “but I don’t know.” And the issue isn't a sticking point for Watkins. “As students, we’re advocating for sexual health, not sex,” says Watkins. “The point is to know all of this stuff so you can make an informed decision to say yes or no.”
SABOTAGE: Watkins, a leader of student anti-violence group GU Men Creating Change, sat in on the sessions to ensure that the sex ed program broaches issues of consent. That means not only “communicating sexual wants and desires,” but also addressing “contraception tampering and pressuring partners to not use contraception.” Pressure to forgo contraception—isn’t that kind of a Catholic thing? “I talked about the problem of contraception tampering in one of the meetings, and no one seemed to challenge me on that,” Watkins says. “But it is still a very, very fuzzy line.”
ABORTION: “I think the only thing you can’t educate about where to get something is an abortion,” Watkins says. “Abortion will not be addressed, I don’t believe,” Schwartz concurs.
PULLING OUT: The “education, not advocacy” bit becomes more complicated when student sex educators consider how to translate the sexual intel into pithy, memorable, poster-ready slogans. Asks Schwartz: “How do we say pulling out is not OK, without saying that?”
CHAINING SELF TO JOHN CARROLL STATUE: OK. No advocacy! But what about after the sex ed session ends? Can students get back to hounding the school to bring contraception out of the world of ideas? “I don’t think there would be any problem with students doing any individual advocacy campaign, but I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen," Schwartz says. "We’re committed to working within the system right now. We’re really excited to work with the university. And the university is interested in working with students who are committed to respecting its boundaries." As soon as it figures out what they are.