Boston College has threatened to take disciplinary action against the student group Boston College Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH) for establishing "Safe Sites" across their campus that provide condoms, lubricant, and information on sexual health and consent to students. The administration's argument is that condom distribution goes against the Jesuit, Catholic tradition of BC. Having graduated from Boston College in 2008, and advocated on this issue as a student and written about it repeatedly since, I find it extremely frustrating that five years later we are still having the same discussion.
Over the years there seems to have been slow-moving but significant progress on this issue. Despite not being funded or officially recognized by the university as a student group, BCSSH has been able to establish a growing presence on campus. Their "Safe Sites" are far more comprehensive and sustainable than the Valentine's Day and Senior Week condom distributions I was a part of as an undergrad. Additionally, in 2009, BCSSSH passed a referendum that would urge the administration to provide contraceptive services and affordable testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Despite the overwhelming student support for this referendum, the school did not change its policies.
There has also been national progress on the provision of contraception by Catholic institutions. Just last year, a new federal requirement was passed that required all Catholic institutions to provide birth control coverage in their employees' health insurance plans providing a glimmer of hope that this provision would be extended to include students. This has yet to happen.
In writing on this issue for a number of years there seem to be three counter-arguments that are the most popularly cited and continue to halt progress.
1. Students are more than capable of going elsewhere to obtain contraceptive services and sexual health information.
In this instance, the students of BCSSH did just that. In the face of being denied services from their administration, they sought out and successfully obtained funding and resources from Advocates for Youth, The Great American Condom Campaign, and the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. While many of their Safe Sites are located on campus, the services they provide are funded entirely elsewhere. Refusing to provide comprehensive sexual health and contraceptive services is nothing new for Catholic universities, but denying students of their ability to exercise their own resourcefulness to access these services all together is a new extreme.
2. Students are already informed on sexual health.
While students may in fact be well informed of how children are conceived, many did not receive adequate sexual health education prior to attending college, and even among those who did there is no guarantee that, that will translate into safe sex practices. In the sexually active and alcohol infused environment that exists on college campuses nation-wide, discussions of safe sex, contraception, STIs, and the meaning of consent go hand-in-hand.
If the recent Steubenville trial and the overwhelmingly victim-blaming tone of its coverage is any of indication our national understanding of sexual consent, it is deeply troubling how far we have to go. By placing a ban on the only space that exists on campus to have these discussions and obtain these services BC is not only denying students of their right to health but putting their safety largely at risk.
3. Students distributing condoms do so against the universities values as a Catholic institution.
By far the most common counter-argument is the one offered by the administration's letter and furthered by University spokesman Jack Dunn, when he stated, "As a Jesuit university, there are certain Catholic commitments that we are called to uphold." Dunn continued, "All we ask of our students is that they respect these commitments and the values upon which they are founded."
Being sexually active and wanting to be informed and safe while doing so does not eliminate all respect that students have for the "commitments and values" of the Jesuit institution they opted to attend. Many students do respect the values of the Jesuit tradition and demonstrate that in their commitment to service, their community, and each other throughout their time at BC and well after. While it may be safe to assume that for many students these values played a meaningful role in their decision to attend BC, it is incredibly unsafe to assume that these same students, or any students for that matter, are sexually inactive or informed, safe, or even consenting participants in the sexual activities they engage in.
BCSSH is simply working to uphold the commitment to sexual health repeatedly demonstrated by the larger sexually active student body. The administration's threat of disciplinary action against BCSSH is not only a demonstration of disrespect for their students' values and needs, it is arguably illegal.
After consulting with the members of BCSSH, Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts has argued that the rights of the students are being threatened and is prepared to take legal action if BC does not reconsider its threat of disciplinary action.
As an alumnus, I truly hope it doesn't come to that. All I ask of you, dear alma mater is that you be respectful of the health, safety, and rights of the students who call your school home.