Notre Dame needs better sex education
Letter to the Editor | Monday, November 20, 2017
Have you ever read one of those startling statistics that causes your mouth to drop open and an elongated “whaaaat” to pour out? Well, here is one for you: according to multiple recent studies, the University of Notre Dame is ranked among the top 10 least sexually healthy universities in the country.
When it comes to academics, Notre Dame is unfailingly ranked very highly, but when it comes to sexual health, the astonishing truth must be brought to the attention of the entire Notre Dame community and must be dealt with. One study, conducted in 2016 by The State of Education, ranked Notre Dame as seventh among the least sexually healthy campuses according to three criteria: access to contraception, average sexual assault rate and STD rate of the campus and its surrounding area (which would evidently take into consideration students living off campus). According to another 2016 study, this time focused more on sexual health awareness programs offered by each university, Notre Dame was ranked 138 out of 140 schools.
So, why is our beloved University ranked so horribly? Part of the reason may have to do with the University’s religious affiliation. According to the Catholic Church, sex requires a commitment to marriage. DuLac, Notre Dame’s guide to student life, states “students who engage in sexual union outside of marriage may be subject to referral to the University Conduct Process.” Despite this prohibition, DuLac still contains sections regarding consent and sexual assault. This may be because of Title IX regulations, or maybe it is because the administration is aware that regardless of the religious affiliation of the University, college students are going to engage in sexual activities.
Furthermore, as a Catholic university, the students at Notre Dame have not always had availability to contraception. Shortly after declaring that the University would no longer provide contraception to faculty or students, the administration reversed this initial stance and decided to now supply students and faculty with coverage for contraception via a third-party insurer. Evidently, it seems that the University is teetering in its stance. Failure to provide contraceptives in the past could have led to a rapid growth in the STD rates, and consequently could have been a direct cause of why Notre Dame is ranked so highly among the country’s least sexually healthy college campuses. Hopefully, this recent reversal will improve Notre Dame’s ranking when it comes to sexual health.
Another reason why Notre Dame has such poor sexual health is because of the amount of sexual assaults that occur on and off the campus. Why do we have seemingly more sexual assaults than other universities? One of the suggested reasons may have to do with parietals. For instance, a student who goes to a dorm party and accidentally misses parietals might be inclined, out of fear of repercussions from their RA or rector, to stay overnight — while intoxicated — in the opposite-sex dorm. This is a very high-risk situation, and it happens too often to ignore. Moreover, parietals create a “ticking-clock” scenario, in which students, aware that the party must end at 2 a.m., are incentivized to drink faster and be increasingly aggressive in their sexual advances as the clock winds down, lest they leave the party unsatisfied.
While Notre Dame’s collective sexual health is, quite frankly, appalling when compared to other colleges and universities, it doesn’t have to remain that way. The University’s Catholic tradition will always limit what the administration can do in terms of sexual health policies, but it should not mean that they do nothing at all.
Sexuality does not have to be something that is taboo at the University; students would benefit from talking and learning about sexuality rather than being given the impression that it is not open to discussion. When we discovered Notre Dame was ranked so poorly in sexual healthiness, we were shocked, not because this statistic is so unbelievable, but because there doesn’t seem to be any awareness on campus for this issue.
By sweeping Notre Dame’s lack of sexual health under the rug, the administration is preventing students from being fully healthy and safe. The first step to changing the culture of sexual unhealthiness is to admit there is a problem. For example, one major issue at the University is that the administration is not very transparent when it comes to sexual assault. By making students more aware of where and when assaults have occurred consistently rather than occasionally, students can become more equipped to stay safe on the campus. This would also allow more students to understand how much of a problem sexual assault, and sexual health in general, is on our campus. The administration’s silence makes students unaware of sexual health issues on campus while also emboldening sexual predators and increasing the likelihood of future assaults.
Next, the University must address the ambiguity of the definition of consent. The full text of the definition can be found here. What are “clearly, understandable words or actions?” Can a person revoke their consent at any time, even after giving it once? Who must give consent: one person, both persons, their parents? If the “relevant standard” for determining if a victim was incapacitated is “whether the respondent knew,” can the perpetrator simply claim they did not know and get off free? It is the responsibility of the University to fix this definition in order to help prevent sexual assaults from occurring. Let us clarify that the only cause of rape is the existence of rapists, but the ambiguity of the definition makes it harder to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Another way for the administration to change the current culture of sexual unhealthiness would be to implement programs or classes for students to learn about sexual health. According to the study mentioned earlier, Notre Dame is one of the worst schools when it comes to offering its students opportunities to learn about sexual healthiness. If a student has no opportunity to learn about how to be sexually healthy, then why should anyone expect that the student will lead a sexually healthy life?
In 2015, the University began to require all first-year students to take a two-semester course called Moreau First Year Experience. This class is intended to help students transition into college life and as a result includes units on health and well-being, academics and relationships just to name a few. A unit on sexual health would fit in perfectly into this curriculum, and would be a step in the right direction for the University.
It is completely reasonable to believe that the University can teach its students about sexual health without compromising the Catholic values on which it was built. By teaching students about sexual health, the University would not necessarily be approving of students having non-marital intercourse. There is so much involved in sexual health, from healthy relationships to healthy body image, that has almost nothing to do with the act of intercourse. And, after all, there is some verity to the statement that abstinence is the best form of protection from disease and unplanned pregnancy. It would be very easy for any sexual health education class to come with a disclaimer that in principle, the University does not approve of students being sexually active prior to marriage. By incorporating some sort of educational curriculum centered on teaching students how to be healthy sexually, the University can encourage its students to make healthier choices without compromising its morals.
It might also help to call attention to policies regarding sexual assault/sexual health, consent and contraceptive availability at other Catholic universities. At the University of Dayton, stores on campus, although not affiliated with the University, offer certain types of birth control. The only rule against sexual activities is that no sexual assaults are permitted. Furthermore, Dayton offers classes regarding sexual education and students are made aware of these.
Georgetown University also makes no mention of any prohibition of sexual activities between unmarried students in their “Policy on Consensual, Sexual, or Romantic Relationships.” Rather, the University offers resources that allow students “to make informed decisions that are consistent with your personal beliefs.” Additionally, the Student Health Care Center offers testing and treatment for STDs as well as pregnancy tests. These are only two of many Catholic universities in the country that provide resources for students regarding sexual health and they are examples of how the Catholic mission need not be sacrificed in order to create a more sexually healthy campus. It would be beneficial to implement some of these ideas at Notre Dame.
As one of the leading Catholic institutions in the world, Notre Dame has a commitment to upholding the values of the Catholic Church. However, Notre Dame and its administration also has a responsibility to advocate for the health and safety of the students paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. The fact that Notre Dame ranks so poorly when compared to other institutions in terms of sexual health is evidence that the University must take significant steps to make sure students are healthy and safe. Other Catholic institutions like Dayton and Georgetown are able to educate their students about sexual health without compromising the Catholic values they were built upon, so why doesn’t Notre Dame do so as well? When I asked a first-year student at Dayton to evaluate the collective sexual health of his university, he responded immediately, “[The] sexual health of the campus is good; it is safe.” This level of comfort is not something that can be echoed by Notre Dame students, and it is about time that the administration does something about it.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.