Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

LTE: BC Needs Better Sexual Health

The results are in and the evidence of widespread sexual activity among the student body is an uncontested reality of student life at Boston College. Conducting my sexual health study of the student body was an incredibly insightful and alarming endeavor—the first study of its kind that I could find at a private Catholic university in the US. While some of the results may seem obvious from firsthand experience with our peers, I came to realize there are many unrecognized and neglected dimensions of sexual health that students have not yet had the opportunity to engage with at our Jesuit Catholic university. The UGBC Sexual Health Referendum, which will come to a vote of the student body on February 15, aims to rectify these health inadequacies on campus, promote discussion, and destigmatize the prevalence of safe, consensual sexual relationships.

Despite the ideological rhetoric employed to silence discussion of sexuality on the campus of a private
religious university, many spiritual leaders and ideals express recognition of sexual health as an integral component of holistic wellbeing, or cura personalis, a treasured value of Jesuit theology. Faith leaders on campus should encourage dialogue on this topic and find ways to compromise with students in order to promote the health of all while still maintaining respect for the cultural heritage of the university. A clear reality on campus is that many students at BC are not Catholic, and many Catholic students at BC do not practice sexual abstinence. Recognizing that a large majority of students do not consider premarital sex to conflict with their personal morals, the university should respect the diversity of social values among the student body, and accept that students will continue to engage in sexual relationships driven by their healthy and natural inclinations for intimacy and companionship in college.

In case you weren’t aware of the national prominence of this issue, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) and American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) report that 1 in 2 sexually active persons will contract an STI by age 25.1 Furthermore, the estimated annual cost of STIs in the US hovers around $16 billion,2 while undiagnosed STIs annually cause almost 24,000 women to become infertile.3 About 1.1 million people in the US are living with HIV, yet 1 in 7 of them don’t know they are infected.4 About 1 in 2 Americans are infected with HSV-1, the typical cause of oral herpes,5 while 90% of those with genital herpes aren’t aware they are infected.6 Finally, infection rates for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis reached a record high level in 2015, with the 1.5 million new Chlamydia cases representing the highest number of annual cases of any condition ever reported to the CDC.7 Diminishing access to resources due to public health budget cuts are one of the primary factors attributed to this sudden rise.

So let’s get down to some of the findings at BC that you may have missed from the full sexual
health survey report conducted by the Students For Sexual Health. Of the 393 undergraduate student respondents, 80% indicated they are or have been sexually active at BC, while 45% of those sexually active had 2 or more partners in the last year, and 40% have genital/anal sex on a regular basis (biweekly or more frequent), whereas 35% have oral sex on a regular basis. 66% have had genital/anal sex without a condom, and 94% never use a condom during oral sex. 28% have feared they have contracted an STI, while 41% know students who’ve contracted STIs at BC. Only 6% responded affirmatively to receiving treatment for an STI during their time as a BC student. 48.5% of students have never been tested for STIs, and 65% disagree that they know how to get tested on campus, whereas 44.3% don’t know where to find sexual health resources and treatment near campus. 60% of women have never taken a pregnancy test, while 33% of respondents have had a pregnancy scare, and 17% know BC students who’ve had unplanned pregnancies. When asked the primary reason for having unprotected sex, a majority responded that they were in committed monogamous relationships, while 14% responded they didn’t have access to a condom, 11% didn’t like the feeling of using a condom, 2.6% were pressured by their partner not to use protection, and 14% thought birth control was sufficient protection. As a gay man, I was particularly dismayed that 64% of respondents were unaware of the medication PrEP, a daily pill that virtually eliminates your risk of contracting HIV when taken properly.8

When it comes to student opinion, 92% of students believe their peers should be allowed to distribute
condoms on campus, 84% want more discussion about sex and sexual relationships on campus, and 93% believe sexual activity is safer on college campus when contraceptives and STI protection are provided by the university. A significant proportion of respondents expressed confusion relative to the university’s policies on sex, condoms, and condom distribution, while 72% are uncomfortable reaching out to the university (administrators, counselors, health services) with questions or concerns regarding their sexual health. 79% of students would use sex health resources distributed by student groups on campus, affirming the importance and necessity of the upcoming UGBC referendum.

These results speak for themselves, however here are a few reflections. A significant proportion of the student body engages in risky sexual behaviors, yet a startling number have limited knowledge and access to resources and services (like condoms and STI tests) to protect themselves. There is clearly a substantial desire for more accessible and affordable resources, however the taboo and university policies towards sex at BC restricts students’ abilities to find and use resources. Given the uncertain survival of the Affordable Care Act and other rollbacks in public health funding, women are finding it increasingly difficult to access affordable birth control with their health plans, thereby heightening the need for birth control access at University Health Services, which currently dispenses birth control only for non-contraceptive purposes.

Even if the university wants to maintain abstinence as their official position towards premarital sexual
activity, they should still consider their approach to sex a failure when almost 3 out of 4 students are uncomfortable reaching out to the university about the issue and their health needs. The student body would greatly benefit from campus discussions about these topics, such as the circumstances under which unprotected sex is less risky, or how often one should get tested for STIs. Allowing student groups to facilitate these discussions in coordination with the university would help cultivate a sex-positive environment, as opposed to restricting the conversation to harmful experiences of sexual assault—as is currently the case. Preventing assault and abuse is a fundamental pretense of sexual health, however the dialogue must dig deeper into the potential for positive, consensual sexual experiences.

Allowing BC student groups to provide information and resources (like condoms) to their peers would allow the university to uphold its cultural integrity, while recognizing the health needs of its students. Taking such a course of action would not be exceptional, as Georgetown University—another Jesuit Catholic school—adopted a similar policy of benign neglect towards campus condom distribution efforts by their student sexual health group, Hoyas for Choice. The Students For Sexual Health organization applies for and receives all of its funding and materials from external health advocacy organizations like the Great American Condom Campaign, Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood, among others. Therefore, the university would not be required to fund or provide these resources if Students for Sexual Health is permitted on campus.

In such a formative and critical period of our lives, the undergraduate years are a fruitful time to explore our sexual identities and reflect on our intimate experiences with others. Intimacy and companionship are healthy desires for BC students. While it’s true that sexual intercourse is not always required to fulfill these desires, sex is often a fulfilling expression of passions. Whether you have sex or not, Students for Sexual Health simply wants to give students the tools and knowledge to make safe and informed decisions when they encounter these intimate dynamics with their peers. Please “Vote Yes” this Thursday on the UGBC Referendum to support our efforts and take a stand for student sexual health at Boston College.

—Connor Kratz, MCAS '18

References

1 Cates JR, Herndon NL, Schulz S L, Darroch JE. Our voices, our lives, our futures: Youth and sexually transmitted diseases. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 2004.
2 CDC Fact Sheet: Incidence, Prevalence, and Cost of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the United States. https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats/sti-estimates- fact-sheet- feb-2013.pdf
3 https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats08/trends.htm#f3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States, 2008.
4 https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/overview/ataglance.html
5 Bradley H, Markowitz LE, Gibson T, McQuillan GM. Seroprevalence of herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2—United States, 1999-2010. J Infect Dis. 2014 Feb 1;209(3):325-33
6 Fanfair RN, Zaidi A, Taylor LD, Xu F, Gottlieb S, Markowitz L. Trends in seroprevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 among non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites aged 14 to 49 years-United States, 1988 to 2010. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Nov;40(11):860-4.
7 https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/STD-Trends- 508.pdf
8 Grant RM,et al. Preexposure chemoprophylaxis for HIV prevention in men who have sex with men. N Engl J Med.

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