Sex, drugs and ... Catholic Colleges

You’ve probably heard the stereotype: Catholic colleges are in denial about their students’ sexual lives and alcohol use. Indeed, it’s true that many Catholic universities traditionally ended the conversations on sex and underage drinking with a simple, “just say no!” And yet, students attending Catholic colleges do not differ from students at other colleges, with sex and drinking nationally starting before college. Recent surveys suggest the average age Americans start having sex is 17, and the average age of first use of alcohol is 14. With 95 percent of Americans having sex before marriage, it’s safe to say there’s a bit of a gap between the official university policies and actual student behavior.

Moving beyond the stereotype, I suspect the traditional Catholic abstinence-only model isn’t as black and white as some people may have painted it. I spoke the other day with a recently graduated R.A. from a Catholic college who told me the way he was trained to handle sexual issues on campus.

“Sex is not allowed at this school between unmarried students,” his Resident Director told him in training. “But if sexual situations occur, including unwanted sexual acts,” he said, dropping to a more hushed tone,  “there are some off-campus resources for you to give students including counseling and comprehensive health centers that I’ll email you.”

This workaround mentality, while well-intentioned, doesn’t seem that effective for students who may be uneducated about sexual responsibility, alcohol’s effect on the sexual experience, and the shame reaction that occurs after sexual assault. With a recent poll claiming 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during college, the “sex doesn’t happen, but if it does, deal with it off campus” attitude seems to be a major pastoral missed opportunity.

This week’s video, however, proves this stereotype is becoming less and less accurate. The University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Catholic college, is leading the conversation about sexual violence and substance abuse through “Think About It”, a digitally interactive awareness program that’s both pastoral and conscious of the reality of students’ lived experiences. Nearly 70 national universities, including many non-Catholic, have already adopted it. What struck me, however, is its distinctive Ignatian approach.

“Think About It” addresses four main topics: sexuality, drugs and alcohol, sexual violence, and healthy relationships. It makes it clear that sex, drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be trivialized. As the title suggests, the program urges thoughtful reflection about decisions students encounter, looking at these subjects from a cura personalis (care of the whole person) perspective. The required program takes into account students’ lived experiences (it doesn’t alienate students who haven’t taken abstinence pledges, but instead is designed to be helpful for all students), and distinguishes between sex, intimacy, and love, and how this might all fit into our deepest desires.

President Barack Obama’s Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act requires all universities to provide prevention and awareness programs, but “Think About It” attempts to exceed this requirement by doing more than just passing on information. It focuses on sexuality as a sacred gift, alcohol and drugs as substances with very real consequences, and I found there to be an overarching reminder of innate human dignity throughout. That emphasis on transcendent dignity will hopefully lessen the experiences of shame on many campuses and encourage openness. With unreported sexual assault currently at 80 percent, it’s clear we have some major work to do.

Personally, I spent seven years as a resident minister at Loyola Marymount University, where the sexual and alcohol awareness program was strong. My role as a resident minister wasn’t to be a disciplinarian, but to live in the dorms as a pastoral resource--an adult students could talk to, hopefully without the fear of judgment. Inevitably, some students fell through the cracks. I’m grateful that many students felt comfortable opening up to me and trusting me with their struggles. But I still think about those students who didn’t feel safe talking to me, or anyone else on campus, about their private sufferings tied to sex, alcohol and drugs.

I’m excited about this program precisely because I think it will reach more students, and the number of students struggling alone will decrease. Of course, this program can only do so much. But it certainly opens up important conversations on college campuses especially as we approach the upcoming synod on the family in October.

Inevitably, USF will get some pushback for moving beyond the abstinence-only model. But do you really want your children to attend a college where the risks and consequences of sex and drugs aren’t comprehensively discussed? A school where there isn’t a proper support system for students who’ve made poor decisions? Or worse, an environment where there are limited resources for students who’ve been the victims of poor decisions? USF’s encouragement to “Think About It” shows a real commitment to student formation, and simply makes sense.






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