Student perspective: Catholic universities must embrace discussion on sex and reproductive health

Ed. note: Last week Feministing Editors visited Georgetown University to talk about sexual assault and reproductive health on college campuses. This is a guest post relating to those topics from Morgan McDaniel, who is currently a senior at Georgetown and who helped organize the events. She is the former vice president of H*yas for Choice.

Campus scene from aerial view I go to a Catholic university, and everyone knows what that means.  The student health center cannot give out contraception.  Student groups cannot openly advocate for abortion rights.  Instead of an open, honest conversation around safe sex, there’s an awkward silence.

What everyone might not think about is how this attitude towards reproductive health affects another huge issue on college campuses – sexual assault.  Unless Catholic universities embrace talking openly about sex and reproductive health, we’ll never be able to change the campus culture that allows sexual assault to take place.

Reproductive health is much more than just contraception and abortion.  It is getting yearly exams at the gynecologist’s.  It is making informed decisions about how many children you want and how often you want to have them.  It is also making an informed decision about becoming sexually active.  Healthy relationships and healthy sexual relationships are crucial for reproductive health.

Students need accurate information about reproductive health and the support of adults they can trust.  When a university silences its students on reproductive health, it makes it impossible for them to have the conversations they need to have to be healthy, which includes healthy relationships.  There’s at atmosphere of mistrust towards authorities on an issue where students need the most support.

If a student wants contraception and she’s on the student health insurance, she has to lie to a health practitioner.  If a student needs information on sex or contraception or just wants someone to talk to, she probably won’t turn to a teacher, or chaplain, or even the Women’s Center, because it’s understood that these are things we cannot talk about.  If a student is pregnant and is considering getting an abortion, there is no one she can turn to for support.

All this silence, all this mistrust and confusion, sends students the message that sex is bad and dirty and not to be talked about. But the problem goes beyond how to get people the resources they need when talking about contraception or abortion is taboo. How can we talk about and promote healthy sexual experiences in a place that tells us sex is bad?

If we’re trying to combat sexual assault, it’s not enough to teach women how not to get raped.  On college campuses, 90% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.  These are our acquaintances and friends, members of our community, people we see every day – and that means there’s something deeply wrong in how we relate to each other.  We need to teach men and women how to build healthy relationships and honest, communicative, consensual sexual relationships.  We need to create a culture of consent, where people feel empowered to define their boundaries and respectful of the boundaries of others.

Consent culture is inherently sex-positive, meaning that it views sex as healthy, and we shouldn’t feel shame or stigma about talking about it.  That’s a novel idea in an institution where you can’t say “contraception” on the university radio station.  When our institution makes discussion about contraception taboo, it does not foster a culture of consent.  It fosters a culture of silence and fear.  When we live in a community that tells us sex is bad, the conversations we need to be having – public, sex-positive conversations where we can talk about the importance of enthusiastic consent – do not happen, and culture does not change.  Student groups are trying to do this important work, but without institutional support, it will be hard to reach out and affect the broader campus audience.  For healthy sex and healthy bodies, we have to have an open, sex-positive conversation.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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