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Sexual education discussed on campus

Joseph McMahon | Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university has often helped define the administration’s policies, and sexual education is no exception.

“Every office in the division of Student Affairs is charged with teaching our students about the integration of social, intellectual and spiritual selves,” head of the Gender Relations Center Heather Rakoczy Russell said. “Our charge has to be consistent with Church teaching.”

Although sexual education is available to students from several sources on campus, the Gender Relations Center (GRC) is responsible for the only mandatory sessions students must attend – two classes in the contemporary topics section of physical education. In addition, the GRC will sometimes offer a forum on sex education, as they did yesterday in the first of their eight-part FIRE (Finding Identity Relationships and Equality) series.

“I think it’s more than just important to have an understanding of our bodies … What we are really promoting is to have the right knowledge because it will help us inform our decisions,” GRC undergraduate student assistant Patrick Tighe said.

According to Rakoczy Russell, The Church’s teachings, which state that premarital sex and contraception are immoral, are part of the GRC’s program.

“We are part of the student life of the University, so the programs we design are always consistent with Catholic Church teaching,” she said. “We would not promote anything that is inconsistent with Church teaching.”

However, the pursuit of knowledge is different, and Rakoczy Russell said she is not opposed to educating students.

“For instance, if a student wanted to know how does birth control work, one of the doctors might address that question because it is in terms of gaining knowledge about a subject matter,” she said.

However, Rakoczy Russell said if a student said he or she was planning on engaging is premarital sexual relations, the Church’s moral teachings would direct her actions.

“The onus would be on us to ask, ‘Why have you come to that moral decision and are you aware what the Church would have to say about that?'” she said. “Part of having an informed conscience is having an awareness of what the Catholic Church teaches and what our Catholic mission would call us to do.”

Rakoczy Russell said she does not feel limited by Church teachings, but rather, they guide her in how to best inform students about sexual issues.

“I suppose some people would say that it would be limiting. I actually find it incredibly helpful to know what my parameters are,” she said. “I suppose some people would say that it would be limiting. I actually find it incredibly helpful to know what my parameters are.”

While Rakoczy Russell is quick to point out that the GRC does not provide comprehensive sex education, and that there are other sources on campus, including professors and some student organizations, that can answer questions she cannot, she said the GRC is responsible for designing the curriculum for the sex education portion of Contemporary Topics – a curriculum which does adhere to Catholic teachings.

“To be real honest, I wouldn’t say that [our programs] are a comprehensive curriculum on sex education,” she said.

However, Rakoczy Russell said in surveys she received about the classes, the student response was overwhelmingly positive when asked about the Catholic portion of the class.

Rakoczy Russell also made a distinction between what a faculty member could tell a student and what someone at a student life office, such as the GRC, could.

“When it’s in the mouth of a faculty person, it is contributing to your well-rounded education,” she said. “When it comes from someone in a student life office, then some people are concerned that we are promoting behavior that is contradictory to Church teaching.”

Rakoczy Russell also said dorm staff, including resident assistants and rectors, are more responsible for one-on-one sexual education and are in a better position to help students.

“I would say those are the frontline people charged with having these kinds of conversations because they share life with you,” she said. “What our office is doing is a supplement to that.”

Rakoczy Russell mentioned peer education as a viable alternative. She said the Identity Project of Notre Dame (idND), a division of the Edith Stein Project, is one student group that also helps educate students about the topic.

According to the idND Web site, “Informed by Catholic tradition, the Identity Project believes there are certain fundamental truths about the human person. We look to empower persons to live holistic lives consistent with these truths.”

The group is especially renowned for the Edith Stein Project, “an annual conference that addresses various issues of gender, sexuality, and human dignity by exploring what it means to be authentic women and men.”

According to the Web site, speakers and panelists include professors from Notre Dame’s philosophy and theology departments, several guest lecturers and even some student speakers. One of the student panelists is sophomore Melissa Buddie, whose letter to the editor last year about the hook-up culture at Notre Dame set off a debate around campus.

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Sexual education discussed on campus

Megan Hemler | Thursday, September 10, 2009

If students left Geddes Hall last night feeling tension between their sex education experiences and the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject, then the goal of the Gender Relations Center (GRC) was met, GRC Director Heather Rakoczy Russell said.

“Our sexuality is part of what animates us,” Beth Barsotti, a third-year Master of Divinity Student, said. “There needs to be a dialogue between tradition, the Church and our own feelings and desires.”

A GRC Forum on the topic of sex education and sexual health convened last night in the new Center for Social Concerns building.

The speakers also included Kathryn Cohoon, M.D., a staff physician for University Health Services, and Joseph P. Harmon, M.D., who is board certified in Obstetrics Gynecology.

In response to a student question regarding Notre Dame and its policies regarding contraception, Cohoon said, “We do prescribe birth control for non-contraceptive purposes.”

When remembering his own experiences as a Notre Dame student, Harmon said, “I don’t think there were any resources at all [on campus] to talk about [sexuality] … we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

The forum began with an icebreaker, asking students to share what they had learned from their own sexual education, their various sexual health information sources and what their education had neglected.

The range of questions included alternatives to abstinence-only programs, the various resources that University Health Services provides students and the beliefs of the Catholic Church in the areas of sex education and sexual practices. Students also heard the panelists’ views on media and its influence on young adults and the choice to become sexually active.

This year’s forum was the result of student requests for more campus-wide and co-ed discussion on sexual health.

“In the last three years we’ve had a lot more questions that have to do with moral decision-making,” said Russell, “For that reason, Beth is here.”

The forum was the first in a year-long series of lectures and discussions on a broad range of topics the GRC covers, such as body image, domestic violence and dating. The forums are held on Wednesdays and feature a variety of guest speakers.