At the Catholic University of America, contraception doesn't just cost money — it's banned by the administration, along with premarital sexual activity. CUA officials go all-out to ensure their 3,500 undergraduates remain pure: resident advisors press their ears to dorm-room doors and write down everything they hear if they suspect the students inside are having sex, officials escort students caught red-handed with condoms to the trash, and according to multiple sources, the university even reserves the right to expel students for engaging in sexual acts within dormitory walls. Almost all of the students who spoke to Jezebel about this were too nervous to let us print their names. But boy, did they tell some stories.
Nearly everyone I spoke with knew at least one person who had gotten in trouble after their RAs heard them moaning inside their rooms. "I know one girl that tried to convince them that she was just masturbating," one woman told me, "which isn't really allowed, either." Another student told me about an Area Coordinator that heard a couple having sex in the room above his own. "He notified our RA, but luckily, she just pulled my friend aside and said, ‘I don't want to get you in trouble, but if this happens again you'll get kicked out of the dorm. Be smart, and don't have sex here.'" One senior who was caught giving her boyfriend oral sex in a parked car on campus said she was "treated like an animal" by campus security, who left her handcuffed in front of a packed library for twenty minutes on the night before exams. "I'm positive they wanted to make an example out of me." Another student told me her peers have been "verbally shamed for admitting to having a sex partner or for asking about how and where to access oral contraceptives" at the student health center. I heard multiple reports of students being kicked out of campus housing for having sex, and in rare cases, actually being expelled. I gave CUA officials the opportunity to deny those allegations — but they declined to do so.
In response to the campus climate — and bolstered by stories like that of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who gained notoriety last week when she fought for the right to speak before the House of Representatives on the importance of free birth control — a new student group called Catholic University Students for Choice has launched a guerilla condom distribution group.
21-year-old Callie Otto co-founded CUSC in February with the primary goal of developing a "safe site" to routinely distribute condoms at the metro stop across from campus to students who can't easily afford or obtain contraceptives otherwise. But then rumors started circling that the administration knew about their plans, and had sent an email out to campus officials warning them to monitor CUSC's condom distributing activities. An ACLU contact advised Otto that the administration's Code of Conduct was so vague when it came to "prohibited behaviors and activities" that they could hypothetically claim in court that condom distribution was incompatible with the University's interests as a Catholic educational institution, whether it took place on or off-campus. Fearing disciplinary action, the group devised alternate plans: they solicited non-students, including the mother of one group member, to hand out condoms instead, and organized a stealth on-campus condom drop-off system in which CUSC members meet condom-seekers near the library or leave contraceptive packages hidden under campus benches. "I feel like a drug dealer," Otto said.
You can't blame her; we've obtained a confidential email that proves CUA is doing its very best to stop the group from protecting their peers from STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Here is a full transcript of the email, which was sent to senior residence hall officials:
"Hi everyone, A new organization called Catholic University Students for Choice (not officially recognized by CUA) may be planning to distribute condoms on campus, and perhaps in the residence halls, this weekend. Students are certainly not permitted into private residence halls to distribute condoms so if someone is not a resident, he/she should be asked to leave the building. In the event that a student living in the residence hall is distributing to others in some public fashion, a professional staff member should talk with the student to challenge the behavior and request that the student respect the boundaries of CUA. You do not need to forcibly stop the distribution of condoms nor should you (or an RA) provoke a conflict, but I do think the behavior warrants being addressed in the moment. Please give your RAs a heads up that if they see this behavior, they should alert the AC on call. They do not need to confront the behavior themselves, unless you are confident they can do it in a respectful and appropriate way. If you have any questions, please let me know."
"It's 2012," says Otto. "Whether the administration wants to admit it or not, most people on campus are having sex." CUA doesn't keep their own statistics, but Otto estimates that 90 percent of the student body is sexually active and supports contraception, and calls those students a "vast but silent majority" that is understandably afraid of being penalized by the administration. (Otto herself serves as the public face of CUSC, a position she's comfortable with because she's graduating soon and plans to pursue a career in sex education and advocacy.)
CUA's administration refuses to openly explain the methods they use to regulate sexual activity and contraception. Their Code of Conduct states that "sexual acts of any kind outside the confines of marriage are inconsistent with the teachings and moral values of the Catholic Church and are prohibited," but the administration doesn't specify how it penalizes students for engaging in premarital sexual activity. (Ironically, CUA does detail the repercussions for sexual assault, which it defines as "sexual contact without meaningful, explicit, ongoing consent," but it's pretty hard to imagine how the university polices nonconsensual sex, given that consensual sex is off the table.) The few public statements CUA officials have made regarding contraceptives are contradictory: spokesperson Victor Nakas has said that condoms are expressly prohibited on campus, but President John Garvey recently said in a February 16th congressional hearing that "Women who attend Catholic University are still free and able to purchase and use contraceptives, the fight is about whether we have to pay for it." CUA's media relations team would not respond to my emails or calls, and when I contacted Nakas on the telephone, he hung up on me.
Why won't the administration admit they distributed the aforementioned email if they stand by their anti-condom principles? Is it because President Garvey just told a congressional hearing mere weeks ago that he wasn't trying to limit access to contraceptives? "It seems as if CUA cares more about maintaining their own religious dogma than protecting the health and well-being of their students," one CUSC member said. "People have no idea how bad it is here."
Michael Galligan-Stierle, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told the New York Times in January that students attending religiously affiliated colleges like CUA, the only institution of higher education founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops, should know what they're getting themselves into. "No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served," he said. Except they might, if the family hosting the barbecue didn't keep kosher 24/7-or, for the sake of the metaphor, a guest might choose to bring his own bacon if he ate it privately in the corner. All of the CUA students I spoke with, most of whom were raised Catholic, chose to attend CUA for a variety of reasons, such as its location, excellent drama program, and scholarship opportunities. All said they would never have dreamed that the otherwise progressive university nestled in the country's capital would actually enforce such stringent sexual policies.
And yet there it is, and here we are.
Image by Jim Cooke.