That was no accident.
The contraceptive was distributed by a recently-formed coalition of students which calls itself Students for Sex and Gender Equality and Safety (S.A.G.E.S). The group — not associated with the university — has emerged with a mission to combat what it considers a restrictive free speech policy, coupled with dated and dangerous sexual health policies.
“The condom distribution is just one tactic of many that we intend to use to engage students in our campaign,” the group said via email. “We are raising awareness of both sexual health facts and practices, as well as the outdated and out of touch policies that inhibit the safety of students.”
The group’s solution to the university being “extremely restrictive” is its rogue form of action-driven social justice initiatives that is making waves on campus, chiefly because the distribution of contraceptives is not allowed by the university, despite a diversified student population which is representative of an array of religious and ethnic backgrounds.
“As an institution in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition, Fordham University follows church teachings on reproductive issues,” reads Fordham’s official policy, which can be found on its website. “Distribution of contraceptives, contraceptive devices and/or birth control, in any form, is prohibited on Fordham University property and at university-sponsored events.”
For that reason, students may have been taken aback to see free condoms changing hands on the dance floor of the McGinley Center Field House, where President’s Ball took place on Friday, and in the student section of Jack Coffey Field, where Fordham hosted the University of Rhode Island on Saturday.
S.A.G.E.S. used the two widely-attended events to launch their initiative, but remained anonymous for fear of repercussions from administrators. (The group maintains a Twitter account and a Tumblr page, on which it posts photos, releases brief updates and documents its campaign goals.)
However, either due to the concealed identity of its students, the nature of the coalition’s initiatives or both, the group has received some early jabs from the Dean of Students Office on social media.
“Instead of anonymity, @fordhamSAGES try some Fordham values this homecoming: open debate and respect for beliefs and traditions of other,” the Dean of Students Office’s account, @RHSLFORDHAM, tweeted on Saturday.
In a separate tweet, which included a link to Fordham’s guide to Campus Assault and Relationship Education (CARE), the account wrote, “Secret protests are fun, but at college, we debate ideas rather than litter about them.”
S.A.G.E.S, which responded to one of the tweets, maintained that the post underscored the university’s goal of controlling the debate about sexual health, among other taboo topics on campus.
“We have already seen this with Dean Rodgers through social media for our campaign. He has reached out, aiming to undermine the legitimacy of this campaign,” S.A.G.E.S. said. “Administrators would rather us talk with them behind closed doors with no witnesses, no progress and no accountability rather than allow us speak up and organize en masse when we are bothered.”
Protecting students from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy, they say, is reason enough for the university to act on distributing contraceptives. “Safety and well-being are not negotiable,” the coalition said. “The decision to attend a university for its academic record should not and must not mean sacrificing personal safety and well-being to do so.”
Even with a considerably eye-catching campaign, S.A.G.E.S. is wary of dominating the campus conversation on its own. Along with social media and direct action initiatives, like the distribution of contraceptives, the group is using an online survey to gauge the Fordham community’s attitude toward contraceptives. The brief questionnaire posted on its website asks users about their views on the issue and their perceptions of Fordham’s policies toward it.
“After we have collected a decent sample size for our survey, we intend to publicly release the data and analysis along with a petition that addresses our demands and the findings from the data,” S.A.G.E.S. said.
Despite the best efforts of S.A.G.E.S and the wide use of contraceptives in America (99% of women ages 15-44 who had sexual intercourse between 2010 and 2014 have used at least one contraceptive method, according to the Center for Disease Control), the anonymous group is likely to be met with adversity from administrators who claim that the university does little to stifle free speech on campus, particularly on topics regarding sexual health.
“We have had a variety of University-provided as well as student-run programs on sexual health at Fordham stretching back decades,” said Christopher Rodgers, Dean of Students. “These begin over the summer with incoming students taking the Haven online educational course, through orientation’s extensive session on sexual misconduct, health and relationships and the CARE session given by health services at Freshman Core Programming. Our residence halls will be doing additional programs this year in this area and we are encouraging relevant clubs and organizations such as Women’s Empowerment to do the same.”
“The policy prohibiting distribution of birth control follows Church teachings on reproductive issues and this should of course be respected, but conversation about beliefs is something we are always eager to have,” he added.
According to Student Health Services, Fordham says it recognizes free speech and open inquiry, but says that it will uphold its integrity as a Catholic institution. The service, which performs women’s health exams at the center, sends lab work to other medical offices and offers counseling, cites the university’s compliance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as cause for its provided resources.
“As an independent Catholic, Jesuit University, Fordham University is not, and cannot be, neutral on moral questions such as abortion and contraceptive devices. The teachings of the Catholic Church on these issues have been clear and consistent,” reads a policy notice under Student Health Service’s FAQ page. “When issues arise that might not coincide with the university’s position on these topics, we recognize the importance of upholding the principles of free expression and open inquiry.”
The service continues, “At the same time, the university has the equally important responsibility of maintaining a clear focus on its identity as an institution in the Catholic tradition, and the principles and values that serve as the foundation of that identity. We explain our policies to our students, with support and always without judgment. Health education is offered on sexual issues and practitioners are available to clarify concerns and misunderstandings.”
Some campus leaders, emblematic of a segment of the student population largely in disagreement with Fordham’s position along the cultural divide, are weighing in on the issue as it begins to resurface in light of the efforts of S.A.G.E.S.
“Generally, I think that any effort to open up dialogue on campus is a good thing, especially one that deals with an area as important as sexual health and safety,” said USG Executive President, Nevin Kulangara, GSB ’15. “I do hope that S.A.G.E.S. can become a strong voice on campus while adhering to the policies of the Student Handbook.”
“The S.A.G.E.S. Coalition is taking several important steps, I believe, in holding the university accountable for the well-being and safety of all Fordham students regardless of gender or sexual orientation,” said Eilís Russell, FCRH ’15, a general coordinator for Women’s Empowerment. “Their campaign, particularly the encouragement of open conversations about the diverse sexual experiences of Fordham students, is also an integral part of the Women’s Empowerment mission.”
While the topic has remained on the back-burner of Fordham’s Jesuit Catholic campus for the past few years, similar coalitions have popped up at other leading Jesuit Catholic schools, including Georgetown University and Boston College.
Georgetown’s unofficial coalition, called H*yas for Choice (HFC), formed in 2010 and plays an active role on its campus. The group does not have access to official funding and is unable to advertise in spaces other than the school’s designated free-speech zone. The restrictions have not stopped the group, however, which actively distributes free condoms at student events and parties. While the university was expected to seize HFC, the administration decided not to condemn the effort because it did not use university resources and was working within the limits of its free speech policy. (S.A.G.E.S. does not use university resources either, as it has distributed already-free N.Y.C. condoms that are widely available at medical centers across the city).
A similarly-structured group also sprung up at Boston College in 2009. The unofficial campus group, titled Boston College Students for Sexual Health, began working with campus offices like the school’s housing and health services to plan sexual health-related forums and programs. Administrators later warned students to discontinue distributing the contraceptives if they did not want to be disciplined by the university, putting an end to their on-campus involvement.
The health of current and future Fordham students, S.A.G.E.S. believes, is worth the risky fight — even if it means dodging school administrators, remaining a vocal entity on campus and inherently violating school policy. If it means promoting an open discussion on campus and protecting students from the dangers of not using contraception, the coalition says it plans on making strides on the issue at any cost.
“The debate about policies that affect students daily lives happen behind closed doors,” the group said. “And this issue must be fought in the public eye.”
Joseph Vitale is the Managing Editor for The Fordham Ram.