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Just (don’t) do it?

| Thursday, March 20, 2014

Studying abroad through a non-Notre Dame program has been one of the greatest experiences in my life — not simply studying abroad, but breaking out of the Notre Dame bubble while doing so. The friendships I am building with other students from schools like Vanderbilt, Tulane, USC and West Point have been gratifying and eye-opening as I learn about Greek life or various cultural and socioeconomic differences for college students within the States.

I must admit though, it has been incredibly difficult communicating the kind of place Notre Dame is to students who do not understand the atmosphere beneath the Golden Dome — especially when it comes to social interactions and gender relations.
Through conversation and debate, I am beginning to see a real flaw in Our Lady’s University. It isn’t South Bend’s lack of a thriving night scene or how our single-sex dorms contribute to awkward gender relations ⎯ — although those issues warrant their own discussion ⎯ — but the lack of sexual health education or resources available to students. To be clear, I’m not asking Notre Dame to install condom dispensers in our restrooms or start handing out birth control pills with the Eucharist. Rather, I am referring to how our concern for sexual health is stigmatized and virtually ignored.

Notre Dame is asking its students to abstain from sexual activities and is even fighting the government on its contraceptive policies. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is entitled to hold these positions on sexual and reproductive health, but sexual health encompasses far more than sexual intercourse and contraception ⎯ topics most can easily forget about.

According to the World Health Organization, sexual health “is a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality [that] requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships…[and] the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” Now, it’s pretty easy to sift out the key words Notre Dame would eliminate from this definition if it were to implement a sexual health program for the student body, but let’s look into this a little further.

To have a strong position on sexual health, Notre Dame needs to strengthen its position in the other areas that don’t necessarily pertain to birth control and abstinence. While sexual health is important at every stage in our lives, not just our reproductive years, puberty is probably the easiest to talk about when we’re young, and once we’re older, the conversation changes to gynecological and testicular cancers. But how exactly can a Catholic institution reach its students in their reproductive years?

Last semester, my friend was turned away from St. Liam’s when he asked to be STD-tested because he wasn’t raped and didn’t show symptoms of a disease. A close friend didn’t know she had ovarian cysts until she found herself in a life-threatening situation. I made a friend in an eating disorder therapy group with a sexual addiction that served as one of her triggers. One of my friends was diagnosed with PTSD from constant harassment by an ex-boyfriend who stalked her around campus for a year. I’m a victim of sexual violence but was too afraid to seek mental or physical treatment without being blamed for what happened to me.

There’s the stigma my friends in the LGBTQ community have to endure when it comes to questions about their sexual health, and what about those who are unknowingly or knowingly infected with STIs or STDs but lack the community to discuss their concerns or with which to find meaningful, long-term relationships?

Of course, you can always discreetly consult Internet communities like healthcentral.com for sexual health information, positivesingles.com for dating-with-disease advice or aftersilence.org regarding surviving sexual violence, to name a few, yet where are our communities at Notre Dame? All these things considered, and still, heaven forbid you get spotted at Planned Parenthood for a reason other than holding a protest sign.

These issues are incredibly important and unfortunately very easily tossed aside for the sake of debating one’s position on abortion and birth control. My study-abroad friends mention the advertisements at their universities for free STD testing or daycare centers for students with unplanned pregnancies. They have health staff administering routine gynecological and testicular exams and offering diagnostic services, evaluation and treatment in a non-judgmental clinical setting, regardless of sexual orientation.

There are a lot of emotional, mental and physical factors to consider when crafting a sexual health program for a Catholic university, and if we have to exclude methods of practicing safe sex, then we seriously need to give students more resources and support other than an anti-Nike approach like: “Just [don’t] do it.” Not to get into another controversial subject, but maybe we should be investing $400 million into student health instead; after all, our health is integral to academics and athletics anyway.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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