In late February, Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke testified in front of a congressional sub-committee. Her testimony instantly drew lawmakers’ attention to issues surrounding the refusal of some Catholic institutions’ health insurance plans to offer students contraception. Last week, Brown students donned contraception-themed costumes, played carnival games with condoms and received free contraceptive devices at this year’s Condom Carnival sponsored by the Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council.
In contrast to some religious-affiliated universities, contraception is readily available at Brown, and Health Services makes it a priority to educate students on sexual health issues. But some have voiced concern that excessive promotion of contraception on campus encourages casual sex, which they view as having harmful long-term consequences.
Five months before Fluke testified, 18 Catholic colleges and universities joined together to write a letter to the Obama administration criticizing the mandate that contraception be covered in health insurance plans nationwide. Since that time, the Obama administration has backtracked and issued an “accommodation” for religious institutions that does not require them to provide contraception directly. Even so, Catholic bishops maintain that the mandate infringes on their religious beliefs.
Though the legislation deals specifically with employers’ responsibility to cover their employees’ health insurance needs, the national debate about mandating contraception coverage in health care plans has implications for college campuses. A wave of media attention has brought the relationship between a university and its students’ sexual health to the forefront.
In 1965, Brown became one of the first college campuses that offered oral contraceptives to students, though the recipients had to be engaged or married – a move that was met with significant controversy. Nationwide, many Catholic institutions of higher education do not offer contraception on campus and choose not to cover birth control in university insurance plans.
As is the norm for universities that are not religiously affiliated, Brown’s health insurance plan includes birth control coverage. Health Services’ website details contraceptive methods available to students. It also describes the benefits of abstinence and provides information about finding abortion providers in Rhode Island.
Condoms and dental dams are available through Health Services on the doors of residential peer leaders, vending machines at various locations on campus and events such as the annual condom carnival. Birth control pills are available at the Health Services Pharmacy, as is the emergency contraception Plan B, which students can purchase for $30. The CVS in Wayland Square sells the same product for $50.
‘The responsibility of having sex’
Ryan Fleming ’13, editor of the conservative and libertarian publication the Brown Spectator, expressed concern about the long-term implications of casual attitudes toward sex on campus. Fleming pointed to “Humana Vitae,” an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI, to highlight the damage he believes birth control has caused.
“He addressed the ways that (birth control) hurts women, takes away the responsibility of having sex with women and makes it so you can have no-strings-attached sex,” Fleming said. “It underlines the fact that you can almost fully objectify a woman … without ever considering the consequence of childbearing.”
Fleming, who was critical of what he sees as the University’s unnecessary emphasis on sex, said in his “dream world you could really take everything back (to) pre-sexual revolution and bring back the gravity there used to be to sex.” But he added that he has accepted that contraception will be a presence on campus.
Instead, he said his objections lie in the attention Brown pays to sex-related campus events. Fleming added that the University’s allowance of events such as SexPowerGod puts students “in overly sexual situations.”
“As a hallmate once said to me freshman year, ‘They make you think if you’re not having sex, you’re abnormal,'” Fleming said.
Potential concerns in providing birth control for unmarried people would be better characterized as concerns about sexual morality, said Henry Bodah, associate University chaplain for the Roman Catholic community.
Because the University does not have a religious affiliation, Bodah said he does not object to the provision of contraception to students. But he added that this attitude may promote “the idea that the only dangers of sex are pregnancy and disease.”
“What I’m afraid of is that it’s disregarding the human tradition that connects the natural connection between procreation,” Bodah said. The potential consequences of casual sex are uncertain, and students may feel “pressured into it,” he said.
Health Educator Naomi Ninneman, who provides sexual education services on campus, acknowledged the need to support students who choose to remain abstinent.
She pointed to last semester’s Herald poll, in which three-quarters of undergraduates responded that they had one or zero sexual partners in the fall semester.
“We need to make sure those people don’t feel invisible,” Ninneman said. “But we also need to provide students with information.”
Aida Manduley ’11, Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council co-chair and Sex Week Co-Programmer, said the council organizes Sex Week and other programming throughout the year and advocates making sex education accessible to all students, whether or not they are sexually active.
“Brown as an institution is creating an atmosphere and providing services for students to become productive members of society,” Manduley said. “Part of that is providing services for all facets of student life. Sexual health is one of those facets.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that one in three undergraduates responded that they had zero or one sexual partner in last semester’s Herald poll. In fact, roughly three-quarters of students reported that they had either zero or one sexual partner last semester in the poll. A photo caption also incorrectly stated that the photo was a scene from this year’s Condom Carnival. In fact, the photo was taken on Consent Day. The Herald regrets the errors.