It’s so easy to get sidetracked by the condoms.
That’s what put Boston College in the spotlight last week: A crackdown on a student group that was passing out condoms on campus, promoting public health while violating a basic Catholic rule. It’s a go-to watercooler story about theology and politics and culture and morality and “the things kids do these days.”
But what’s most fascinating is what this story says about the state of campus activism and sex — the way students are stepping up, on their own, to fill a widespread gap in real-life education.
As activist groups go, Boston College Students for Sexual Health is relatively new: formed in 2009, after a campus referendum in which students asked for more access to birth control and more information about sex. The group has passed out thousands of free condoms over the past few years, from dorm rooms and from tables they set up on sidewalks controlled by the City of Newton.
Before a threatening letter came from out of the blue — stop the condom handouts, or face punishment — the group seemed to operate in a delicate state of detente with the administration. I’d like to think that’s because university officials understood why these students’ work was so important.
Because it’s not just condoms the group hands out. It’s also pamphlets that explain how to use condoms correctly, describe sexually transmitted diseases, discuss healthy relationships and the meaning of consent. Group leaders hold a yearly panel discussion called “Freshman Conversations,” in which new students ask questions, anonymously, about relationships and sex. They host a biannual “sexual health trivia night” at a local bar. They’ve tried to work with campus officials to develop programs that encourage “positive sexual decision-making.”
In other words, this group of 15 active members has become, in a short time, a giant source of informal education on campus. Lizzie Jekanowski, a chairwoman of the group, said she once ran into a man, at a bar near campus, who had heard her talk about hookup culture on a “Freshman Conversations” panel. He gushed for a good five minutes, she said, about how helpful that frank discussion had been.
That’s a useful reminder of what college students know and what they don’t. Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to enter a campus today. You might have had abstinence-only education, with scant information about how contraception works. You might have parents who are skittish about having “the talk.” You enter a maelstrom of freedom and hormones and alcohol.
The string of reckoning moments over sexual assault — across the country and close to home — suggests that students need a stronger foundation of knowledge, not just about the mechanics of contraception, but about the power dynamics of sexual relationships and the meaning of consent.
That’s one reason why outside advocacy groups that deal with public health have been so passionate about this Boston College controversy. The Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is trying to rally support. Advocates for Youth, the sexual-health advocacy group that provides the BC group with grant money every year, issued a statement pointing out that by age 20, 75 percent of young people have already had sex, and that comprehensive sex education encourages kids to have sex later, and safer.
Yes, this is an issue about reproductive rights and access to affordable birth control, which ties into some ongoing national debates. But it’s also a matter of basic campus safety — physical, mental, and emotional — which is why BC’s choice to home in on condoms is the wrong idea. College officials say they’re simply asking for respect for Catholic teachings and traditions. They are clearly in a delicate position.
But by focusing on what these students are supposedly doing wrong, the college is ignoring everything they’re doing right.
“Instead of threatening, what if BC said, ‘We don’t totally love your message, but we respect the fact that you are taking responsibility for yourselves?’ ” said Marty Walz, the president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
Students, it turns out, sometimes have plenty to teach.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.