Campus Conversations / Catholic campuses navigate sexual health, wellness

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series titled “Choice on a Catholic Campus,” discussing sexual health, reproductive rights and religion at Fairfield’s two universities, both Catholic.

FAIRFIELD — Universities have long been a space for dialogue, protest and dissent. At Fairfield’s two universities, growing national conversations about sex and sexual health mingle with the schools’ Catholic values. At times, those values conflict with programs — such as distributing or selling contraceptives on campus — that other campuses have adopted.

“We support Sacred Heart’s mission. It’s Catholic in tradition,” said Anne Mavor, Sacred Heart University’s Health & Wellness Center director and an adult nurse practitioner. “We provide education — it’s the best tool that we can give them.”

More so than Sacred Heart University, Fairfield University has confronted questions about its sexual health resources this year after some students began advocating for more resources — condoms on campus, birth control prescribed through the student health center, more educational programs and literature on safe sex and year-round free Sexually Transmitted Infection testing at the student health center — at a campus-run student event in early spring, “Let’s Talk Sex.”

University leadership explained the school could not grant student requests, in particular about condom availability, due to its Catholic mission. Some students concurred, noting students have access to condoms and outside care just off campus. Others harbor lingering concerns about student health.

“Religion aside, we’re talking about the health of the student body and this has to come first because this actually impacts the students, and we’re the paying customers,” said Alec Lurie, a 19-year-old student from Long Island, N.Y. who is poised to become College Democrats co-president next school year.

Resources on campus

Citing Catholic doctrine, neither Fairfield University nor Sacred Heart distribute or sell condoms or other contraceptives on campus. While other Catholic universities — including Jesuit colleges like Fairfield University — reflect that practice, most colleges do not.

Ninety-one percent of college health centers provide male condoms and 62 percent provide oral dams, according to the American College Health Association’s 2014 Pap Test and STI Survey, its most recent results of its nationwide annual sexual health study. ACHA surveyed 152 institutions, the majority of which were four-year public universities though private universities were surveyed as well.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, representing the U.S.’s 28 Jesuit institutions, declined to comment for this report.

Neither Sacred Heart nor Fairfield universities prescribes birth control as a method of contraception, though the AHCA found 97 percent of the student health centers it surveyed prescribe oral contraceptives. Fairfield University’s student health center will prescribe oral contraceptives in tandem with an outside medical provider as part of a treatment plan for strict medical need, university Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer Anderson said. The university declined multiple requests for an interview with health staff.

Sacred Heart prefers to refer students to community-based medical providers off-campus and suggests options that can be walked to from campus, according to Mavor. She added the university understands not all of its students are Catholics but to support the university’s values while also addressing student health, students are referred to the outside providers for condoms, oral contraception and a positive pregnancy test.

The Catholic Church preaches abstinence and its doctrine precludes the use of contraceptives of any sort. It condemns abortion as a grave sin and theft of life.

Sacred Heart does not delve into the topic of abortion with students; the university chooses to refer pregnant students to counseling and an OB-GYN. In the meantime, staff would talk with the student about staying healthy until they can seek medical and counseling care.

“We don’t discuss specifics,” Mavor said. “The decision doesn’t need to be about a baby yet. The decision is about the pregnancy and staying healthy and what they need to do to stay healthy until they can see a provider to go over all their options.”

Anderson explained Fairfield University’s health center will help with medical needs, including sexual health and sexuality services, in a “confidential, non-judgmental” manner.

“They handle everything from your standard cold and flu issues to other ones that are probably more significant — things like urological exams, pregnancy testing, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing and treatment, HIV testing that we do, gynecological exams, pap smears,” she said.

But if things are beyond what the on-campus center is equipped to handle, staff refers to specialists or providers in the community. In the case of pregnancy, Anderson said students would be referred to an outside OB-GYN because the school doesn’t have the staff to properly care for a pregnant student.

Sacred Heart’s wellness center offers STI testing and treatment, including pop-up walk-in STI testing times that are new this year. STI testing is otherwise done with an appointment. Staff will also refer students to local health departments that provide STI testing if they prefer a greater level of anonymity.

Karen Flanagan, peer education coordinator, manages an undergraduate student wellness team with a goal of a “really positive, healthy campus culture,” tackling prevention initiatives from alcohol harm reduction to health relationships and bystander intervention. The students — part of the s.w.e.e.t. (student wellness empowerment and education team) peer educators team — are trained to help students connect with resources such as STI testing and science-based research-drive information online. According to the group’s website, topics range from “surviving spring break” to “safe is sexy.”

The goal is to help Sacred Heart students become advocates for their own sexual, physical and mental health, Flanagan said, and to ensure students don’t feel shame and access resources that are right for them. Peer-led wellness teams have popped up at universities across the country.

Peer mentors in Sacred Heart’s program aim to encourage students to be safe and sexually healthy if they choose to be sexually active. “They want the campus to be a place where people can talk about this and that it’s normal for a college student to be thinking about this and make decisions about sex,” Flanagan said.

Beyond campus

Conversations about sex and sexual health are often difficult beyond campus lines.

“In general,” said Fred Wyand, Director of Communications for the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), a nonprofit that combats STIs, “we really struggle with this stuff.”

The Catholic Church balances a strong belief in healthcare with its moral teachings on abortion and contraceptives.

“The Church believes that every human life is a gift from God and that the life and dignity of each person must be respected and protected from conception to natural death,” said Diocese of Bridgeport Director of Communications Brian Wallace. “For this reason, while it has historically advocated for universal healthcare, the Church has also consistently opposed, as a matter of conscience protection and religious liberty, any federal or state mandates that would require it to provide contraception or abortion as part of its healthcare coverage.”

Wallace said he could not address specific health concerns or university matters as he is not affiliated with either college, but he offered that Catholic universities need to address concerns like sexual health in a manner consistent with Catholic values.

Among goals at Catholic universities is to expose students to Catholic teachings on crucial issues, from immigration and the environment to “respecting life from conception onward,” Wallace said. But difference and debate is expected.

“Is there going to be conflict? Absolutely,” he said. “The university is the place for that in the classroom, in the public squares in the university.”

From a health advocate’s perspective, the education students — generally a young and sexually active population — enter college with is inconsistent across the country because sex education varies across schools. Contraceptives and open conversations become important tools to promote sexual health and well being, Wyand, of ASHA, said.

“You need to really look at this as a comprehensive approach,” he said, advocating education alongside access to care and services.

Wyand urged college students to have frank discussions about their sexual history and health with their doctor, often difficult conversations for patient and provider alike. Sexual health discussions should go beyond disease to include the ability to enjoy sex, talking to a partner about boundaries, pleasure, fulfillment and other aspects that support emotional and mental well being, Wyand added.

Contraceptives too play an important role: Wyand called condoms the “one main option” most used and “incredibly effective” when used correctly and consistently to prevent STIs. He believes access to a full range of contraceptives is best from a health perspective but cautioned an extra step — such as going off campus to get condoms — can be detrimental.

“If you put an extra step or two in there, what that means is some folks who would use a condom might not,” Wyand said.

Planned Parenthood, whose presence at a campus event sparked controversy earlier this year at Fairfield University, runs an educational arm that hopes to make dialogue about sex and sexuality more open. Pierrette Comulada Silverman, vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, pointed out parents tend to talk to their kids about drugs, alcohol and other safety concerns, but less so about sex.

The result, Silverman said, is teenagers entering the world and college campuses suddenly unsupervised and figuring out issues related to sex for themselves. Planned Parenthood educators often focuses on consent and power dynamics on college campuses.

“They’re still young people. They’re still trying to figure it all out,” Silverman said, describing college students. Without comprehensive sex education and parent-child discussions about sex and sexuality, she added, “they’re going to be fumbling in the dark.”; @LauraEWeiss16