Sexual Responsibility on Campus
Institutions take a closer look at their rolein today’s sexually tolerant environment.
By Cheryl D. Fields
When Dr. Iverson Bell first came to Morehouse College as a freshman in 1969, the campus code of conduct regarding mingling with students of the opposite sex was fairly rigid. “The era of suits and ties was over by then, but we still had strict behaviors,” says the Morehouse alumnus. At the time, Bell’s future wife was a Spelman student, and he recalls that it wasn’t until they were both upper classmen that he saw the inside of her dorm room.
Today, Bell is a psychiatrist who heads the counseling team at the Morehouse Wellness Center. Included among his duties is the task of providing students counsel and guidance on sexual health issues.
“It is not that the morality or the mores are that much different,” he says, comparing today’s student culture to that of his youth. But “people are more open.”
Sexual expression has been a significant theme in youth culture for generations. Today, however, sexually explicit content is the cornerstone of youth-oriented music, their approach to style and fashion, radio, television and film, the music video culture, and cyberspace. Not only do students, therefore, appear more “open” in their attitudes, their behaviors also are more openly varied than they once were, encompassing celibacy as well as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual relationships. Those who choose to be sexually active face the challenge of protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Many students also need support coming to terms with their sexual identity.
Contrary to the “don’t do it, and if you do, don’t get caught” days of old, when the bulk of sexual health resources on campus focused on pregnancy prevention or “family planning,” today’s postsecondary institutions offer an array of student support services focusing on sexual health and sexual responsibility. These programs range from the distribution of condoms, birth control and emergency contraception to prevention of sexually transmitted disease and workshops on appropriate relationship behavior and protection against sexual assault. Some schools are even beginning to reach out to a group the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as “men having sex with men” or MSWM, which includes males who may not embrace a gay lifestyle, but who engage in homosexual activity. Experts in the field consider these types of services an essential part of ensuring the overall well-being of the campus community.
In the midst of all this activity, there is surprisingly little in the way of national research and data available depicting what percentage of college students are sexually active, how their behaviors may or may not differ from those of non-college students in similar age brackets, and what the consequences of student behaviors are for them and the institutions they attend. For these reasons, it is difficult to accurately determine how the sexual activity of today’s college students compares to that of previous generations. Among the information that is available, most is not disaggregated by race, and there appears to be little information comparing the levels of service provided from campus to campus or examining which segments of the student population are accessing these services. This dearth of information presents a challenge for those in the higher education and health care communities who are charged with designing, administering and assessing services to meet students’ sexual health needs.
One useful source of information about the sexual behaviors of college students is the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), sponsored by the American College Health Association (ACHA) and directed by Dr. Victor Leino. Roughly 1,000 postsecondary institutions are members of the ACHA and since 1998, the organization has conducted semiannual surveys inquiring about the health status of American college students. While not exclusively focused on the sexual nature of student health, the NCHA survey includes several questions on the topic. ACHA membership is not a requirement to participate in the study, and any institution that wishes to can. It is because participants in the survey are self-selected, not randomized, however, that the results cannot be considered representative of national student behaviors and attitudes. Nonetheless, it reveals important information for the campuses that participate.
“A number of schools are repeating the survey to evaluate their intervention campaigns,” says Dr. Ralph A. Manchester, director of the health center at the University of Rochester and spokesperson for the NCHA.
The Spring 2000 NCHA reflects the responses of 16,024 students from 28 campuses from around the country. Among the survey respondents, 7 percent were Black. The study’s executive summary, reports that roughly 72 percent of respondents said they were sexually active, with 48 percent saying they had one sexual partner within the last year (see chart pg. 22). Students who said they were engaging in sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) reported relatively low levels of condom use.
In another study, funded by the Independent Women’s Forum and which focused on the attitudes and behaviors of college women, 31 percent of respondents described themselves as never having engaged in sexual activity. A summary of the study’s findings says students reported a significant level of casual sex at their schools and frustration with the nature of what was described as the “hook up” culture of many college campuses.
“Sometimes ‘hook up’ can mean just you and me are having sex,” reads one quote in the report by a Howard University student. “Sometimes it means getting together and actually forming a commitment or sometimes it just means, you know, meeting somebody. … It depends on the context you use it.”
The high number of students who claimed to be virgins surprised Dr. Norval D. Glenn, one of the principal investigators in the Independent Women’s Forum study and a researcher at the University of Texas. He admits that the nature of this type of survey can lead some students to tell the surveyor what they think he/she wants to hear even if this means deviating from the truth. Even with this social desirability response bias, Glenn says the information culled from student surveys can be valuable.
“The fact that (students) would even feel compelled to be less than honest says something,” Glenn says.
Promoting Sexual Responsibility on Campus
February has become the month during which several national organizations choose to wage public information campaigns focused on sexual health. This year, Feb. 7 was selected by the Community Capacity Building Coalition as the date to observe National Black AIDS Awareness Day; the Bacchus & Gamma Peer Education Network urges college campuses to observe Sexual Responsibility Week anytime during the academic year, though the official 2002 dates are Feb. 10-16; and the American Social Health Association observes National Condom Day on Feb. 14, which not coincidentally is St. Valentine’s Day. The sponsors of these campaigns provide participating college campuses and community organizations with promotional materials and guidelines for how to organize events and activities around the core theme.
Janet Cox, associate executive director and director of programs with Bacchus & Gamma, says this year’s Sexual Responsibility Week theme is, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” The campaign’s materials include an inventory of characteristics found in healthy, positive relationships, and the materials emphasize the importance of practicing safe sex. Roughly 700 campuses participate in the campaign annually, Cox says.
For administrators like Gillian Hallmen, who directs counseling services at Maryland’s Coppin State College — a campus that observes National Condom Day — campaigns like these provide useful opportunities to promote positive sexual behaviors. On Hallmen’s campus, however, these programs are just the beginning.
Coppin State, a historically Black college in Baltimore, which serves a low-income community and has an enrollment of approximately 4,000 students, offers an array of health-focused activities throughout the academic year that emphasize sexual health and responsibility. Sexual issues are covered in the college’s freshman seminar class — a required course for graduation — because like many other institutions, Coppin State believes reaching students early with information about appropriate sexual behavior and maintaining their sexual health is key.
“All of the counselors teach freshman seminar, so the students get a chance to see them and (the counselors) get a chance to know what the students are going through,” Hallmen says. “If (the students) are going through something, they may not reach out immediately, but they know where to go.”
Coppin State’s approach to dealing with sexual issues is in part influenced by the attitudes of the population they serve. “Our students are more sexually free to express themselves,” Hallmen says, comparing today’s students to those in past years. “We used to have cases where people were afraid to let their friends and family members know their sexual orientation. But our society is changing.”
Hallmen adds that the growing presence of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the African American community, provided an incentive for Coppin State to step up its sexual health programming. In addition to the freshman seminar class, the college has formed relationships with public health care providers from the surrounding community who periodically come on the campus to conduct HIV/AIDS screening, mammograms, pregnancy screening and sexual assault education, among other services. The campus also distributes condoms and birth control through its campus health center, and recently received a grant from the state to train a dozen students to serve as peer counselors.
At each of the campuses interviewed for this story, the sexual health resources and services are organized under the division of student affairs/student services. Residential campuses tend to coordinate these services through the campus health center, though their education and outreach efforts are often implemented in cooperation with the campus police, residence hall staff and Greek organizations. Campuses that do not have a residential component sometimes offer a more limited range of services, a situation that concerns people like Mary Hoban, project director for the Building Healthy Campus Communities program at ACHA.
Hoban speculates that the main factor interfering with some campuses’ ability to offer adequate sexual health services is resources. Comprehensive health services programs (which include but are not limited to sexual health) can run into the millions, and for some schools they are simply cost prohibitive. Religious-affiliated institutions and those in socially conservative areas also may be limited in the kinds of services they offer.
Nonetheless, Hoban says even schools that lack the capacity to provide a comprehensive level of service internally should at least coordinate a referral service guiding students to surrounding public health providers in the area. ACHA offers institutions a set of guidelines for building effective sexual health programs, and there are an abundance of other sexual health resources available to campuses and students on the Internet (see sidebar pg. 24).
The University Health Center at California State University Long Beach is a $4 million comprehensive program that recorded approximately 35,000 visits last year. While not all of the students came for sexual health reasons, the center boasts an impressive sexual health program that emphasizes prevention and risk assessment as well as treatment and counseling. Not only does the facility have six physicians, a staff gynecologist and a women’s health center, it also will soon open a men’s health center.
The 32,800 students who attend CSU Long Beach come to campus speaking 47 different native dialects. The student population is 8.2 percent African American, 19.3 percent Hispanic, 7 percent other Latino, 18 percent Asian, 0.6 percent Filipino, 6.9 percent other Pacific Islander and 38.7 percent White. In a population that diverse, the director of University Health Services, Reneé A. Twigg, says it is essential that her staff not only be diverse but culturally competent.
“We make it a point to make sure that we are ethnically, culturally appropriate,” Twigg says. “For example, some students in some cultures don’t want to be touched. It is against their culture. … And we’ve made a point to hire men. They serve as role models.”
ACHA’s Hoban says the cultural competency issue is at the core of a new program her organization is pursuing in conjunction with a five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant will enable ACHA to work with its members to improve their level of service and outreach to underserved populations.
“My experience tells me there are some students who are coming in and are open about what they’re doing (sexually) and are comfortable, but those same students tend not to be at risk,” Hoban says. “I’m not sure, but I think where we are falling down is reaching those students who are at greater risk.”
Cultural competency involves not only diversifying health care staff and sensitizing them to cultural issues related to student health but encouraging peer involvement and improving the quality of outreach and ongoing communication with underserved populations. These underserved groups can include communities of color, male students, and those who are not heterosexual (gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals).
As higher education’s largest minority group, male students are among those who are often reluctant to access the sexual health services offered by their campuses. Developing men’s health centers and improving outreach to athletic teams and fraternities are just a few ways campuses are trying to improve relationships with this constituency.
Today’s gender imbalance appears to have created a different dynamic between the sexes on campus as well. At many campuses, African American females outnumber Black males four-to-one. Consequently, the competition for mates is fairly stiff, and Morehouse’s Bell says many students are not prepared for that competition.
“Often females are more aggressive than the males expect them to be,” Bell says, adding that in some instances the young women are more “worldly wise” than their male partners. The abundance of opportunities for males to have sexual partners can have deleterious consequences.
“Often the guys aren’t sure how far they should go and there are always a few who go too far,” Bell says.
Date rape and other forms of sexual assault are certainly issues of concern on college campuses. Statistics reported in Date Sober! Booze and Rape Associated, by B.M. Conklin, reveal that one in four college women and one in 12 college men have either been raped or suffered attempted rape. These episodes often occur in association with substance abuse. Binge drinkers, for example, are 2.7 times more likely than non-bingers to experienced unwanted sexual intercourse, according to “Alcohol and Drugs on American College Campuses: Issues of Violence and Harassment: A Report to College Presidents,” funded by the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
In 1992, Congress enacted the “Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights,” as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The law requires campuses to notify assault victims of their options to report their incident to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Campuses also are required to institute preventative programs dealing with sexual assault.
Statistics presented to Congress last January by the U.S. Department of Education in a report titled “The Incidence of Crime on the Campuses of U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions” showed that the total number of campus sex offenses reported in 1999 was 2,469, representing an increase of 6 percent over that reported in 1998. This figure amounts to a national rate of about 14.8 per 100,000 students. The report notes, however, that it is unclear whether the increase represents an actual increase in the number of offenses or an increase in reporting of those offenses. It also notes that sex offenses, particularly rape, are among the most underreported crimes in America.
Teaching students appropriate sexual behavior is no easy task. Bell and others say this work is best done early in a student’s life by his/her parents. But when it comes to sex, many students haven’t had the benefit of parental guidance. One report, by the Urban Institute, reveals that only about 50 percent of young men today report ever having spoken to their parents about AIDS, STDs, birth control or what would happen if their partner became pregnant. Complicating matters further, many students come to college from high schools that offered little or no sexual education. In the South, where the African American population is most concentrated and where societal mores are heavily influenced by religion, abstinence-only sexual education programs are the norm. In the Urban Institute study, 30 percent of teenage males reported not receiving any sexual education prior to their first experience with sexual intercourse. For African American males, the rate was 45 percent. In the face of these types of statistics, college campuses have a special responsibility to provide guidance and support for students.
At Morehouse, where the education of Black males is paramount, care is taken not only to provide guidance, treatment and support regarding sexual health and sexual responsibility, but also to address students’ attitudes toward women. The campus recently created a program that explores the sexual content of popular music, the negative sexual images in the media and how these influences affect student attitudes and behaviors.
“In the Black community there are so many negative attitudes about women regarding sexuality,” says Dr. Janice Haynie, associate dean of student development and director of the Morehouse College Wellness Center. “We try to make sure students don’t leave Morehouse with these attitudes.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com