Catholic U's Condom Apostates Contraception Battles, Big and Small, at CUA

When the Rubber Hits the Road: Callie Otto goes off-campus to publicly distribute condoms.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

It’s come to this: At 11 p.m. on a frigid Saturday night, at the Red Line stop across from the Catholic University of America, a freshman with a pixie cut is watching her mom distribute condoms to the steady stream of students who are headed downtown to rage. “Free condoms! Protect yourself! You look great, ladies.”

Nearby, buttoned up against the cold, the Catholic University Students for Choice—which tonight entails half a dozen female students and one gangly British exchange student, male—form a loose gauntlet along the sidewalk, proffering slips of paper with a Gmail address typed on them.

“Need more? Just send us an email,” says CUSC president Callie Otto. “We’ll drop off a whole envelope, totally anonymous.”

It’s hard to remember the last time sex felt so…subversive. The group may be on public property, but they’re in the shadow of a campus where condoms are strictly verboten: If a resident adviser spies prophylactics in a dorm room, they go straight into the wastebasket, and the student’s name goes straight to a dean. So tonight they’re not taking any chances. Hence Mom, who took the train in from Maryland to aid the resistance. A rainbow of rubbers, which one of the activists says were supplied by NARAL Pro-Choice America, sits in a box at her feet.

“I don’t think a bracelet is going to protect you from an unwanted pregnancy or a disease,” Mom says, lighting a cigarette. “I want you to be as safe as you can be. Baby, take care of yourself. You are worth something.” (She declines to give her name, lest her daughter be identified as a condom abettor.)

Every few minutes, another raucous gaggle staggers past—young men in Dockers and wrinkled button-downs and girls in heels and little else clutch Dasani bottles that probably don’t contain water. One guy stops to unzip beside a tree. An hour of rather unscientific study suggests that three-quarters of the partygoers are decidedly in favor of free condoms, with some correlation between inebriation and ebullience.

“Everybody’s fucking tonight!” shouts one charmer, running to catch his friends. “Everybody’s fucking tonight!”

In fact, everybody is not. CUA doesn’t keep its own statistics, but studies indicate that while 70 percent of college students are sexually “experienced,” only half are sexually “active.” More than a few boys, finding their Y-chromosomes suddenly outnumbered, seem mortified at the prospect of taking a Trojan from a total stranger. They hurry across the street, heads down. Perhaps one in three girls—dressed as often for the bar as for the library—politely declines or silently steps off the sidewalk to avoid the group. “I don’t hate it,” says one hesitator, before slipping the email address into her back pocket.

As they wait for more potential converts, the Students for Choice talk feminist theory and lament the “centuries of ingrained patriarchy” that have led them to this point. (“Hands off my ovaries, bro!”) Otto, a senior from Neenah, Wis., relates her own conversion story. “In high school, I had a good friend who got an STD, a pretty bad one. She had no idea about these things.” Otto brought her to Planned Parenthood for subsidized birth control. But, Otto says, the friend couldn’t pay even the reduced cost. “She crossed the stage at our graduation nine months pregnant. She’s got two kids now.”

Mom tells war stories from having fought these same battles forty years ago, pre-Roe v. Wade. “After they finish calling you slutbags and somebody gets crucified, then you get called an American hero. Your grandchildren will read about it.”

A bored-looking public safety officer loiters for a while, minding the group, and then disappears. He doesn’t return. Even so, the provocateurs are nervous. “It’s just amazing how close of tabs the school likes to keep on students,” says the group’s secretary, a senior who also declines to give her name. Recently, the administration sent an email to RAs, alerting them to CUSC’s off-campus condom action, reminding them of the school’s zero-tolerance policy, and asking them to report any wayward members of the flock. (CUA spokesperson Victor Nakas declined to confirm this.)

“It’s so sketchy,” says Otto. “I feel like a drug dealer.”

In truth, CUA President John Garvey has bigger headaches than Operation Condom Drop at the Brookland Metro station: If President Barack Obama’s administration has its way, students, faculty, and staff, will soon be able to access contraception free of charge.

Unless Catholic groups can successfully challenge the constitutionality of the new insurance rule—a doubtful prospect, though the endeavor is underway—CUA’s insurer will be required to pay for procedures and pills which the Church considers abjectly immoral. Not since Griswold v. Connecticut, which, in 1965, got the government out of married couples’ bedrooms, and Eisenstadt v. Baird, which, seven years later, extended those privacy protections to the unwed, has contraception been a constitutional issue. Yet here we are.

Two weeks ago, amidst a maelstrom of partisan theatrics, Garvey appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, one of eight men and two women called to inveigh against the rule. In a hearing otherwise dominated by political gimmickry, Garvey, a constitutional law professor with a J.D. from Harvard, offered a cogent legal argument, acknowledging the instances in which First Amendment religious freedoms can be abridged by compelling government interest. (Conclusion: This isn’t one of them.) Staff and students knew full well what they were signing up for by coming to CUA, he suggested, and anyone who didn’t like it could always pick up their toys and go home.

Garvey has a sharp intellect. His testimony followed an interesting bit of logic, but not one most lay Catholics support. Indeed, according to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of Catholics believe employer-provided insurance should cover birth control. For Garvey, the contraception kerfuffle has everything to do with religious freedom. (The president’s remarks stand on their own, Nakas wrote in an email.) For others, it’s less abstract—or, less about religious freedom than equal rights. After all, when 68 percent of sexually “active” Catholic women use some form of birth control, why should they have to pay out for it of pocket, score it from a crusading feminist at the Metro stop, or drive to the Planned Parenthood across town?

As Otto observes, “It’s a pain in the butt to get down there.”

As the clergy and legal theorists have at it, on the Hill and on Fox & Friends, Otto’s resistance is planning their next action: STD facts taped to suckers and phallic cookies, or games of Pin the Wart on the Genital. In the week that the Gmail address has been active, she says, only three people have written for re-ups, and, anyway, CUSC would like to be more than a surreptitious condom dispensary.

Otto will graduate soon, and she hopes to land a job teaching young people how to have safe, healthy sex. Though she’s had a falling out with the Church, the differences may not be irreconcilable. “It has nothing to do with the spirituality,” she says. “It’s the politics. The idea of Mary is really special to me. It’s the one feminist thing that the Catholic Church does.”

On another sea of giggles, more little black dresses totter by. Their beaux, perhaps optimistically, line their pockets like kids loading up on Halloween candy. “Like, horny little fucks that are drunk right now,” mutters one of the Students for Choice, less than benevolently. “They want them now.”

Mom and daughter stand together in the bitter wind. “Your dad and I have had the conversation and said, ‘You know what, if she gets expelled or they withdraw her scholarship, it’s not the end of the world.’ Because we support what you’re doing, and we think you’re on the right side of history and the right side of morality.”

Her daughter dimples, shrugs. “You raised a fighter. Sorry.”

Our Readers Say

Outstanding work, Otto and CUSC! I'm old enough to be your mother, so there is a surreal quality for me to this fight -- I thought we broke the chains that kept women from making their own health and sexuality decisions decades ago, but here we go again. So glad there are young people (and moms) who are fiercely fighting for women's rights and needs. Keep up the good work! As for Pres. Garvey, I have a lot of respect for him, but I think his argument approaches the issue from the wrong angle. The Catholic Church permits compromises between its beliefs and the reality of the world all the time; that the leadership is blinding and stiffing on this issue is not because of anything to do with separation of church and state but because it threatens the Church's hold on its members' sexual behavior, the last trace of its former secular power, and one it is desperate to keep. How about respecting freedom of conscience, CUA?
Shouldn't one look to the philosophy behind the Church's position before calling the leadership "blinding" and "stifling"? The reason the Church forbids contraception is because it degrades the beauty and self-giving of the sexual act. Church teaching states, "The spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family." (Catechism 2363)In other words, the Church teaches that between man and wife, the pleasure of expressed love and the transmission of life are both necessary components of intercourse. Separating the pleasure from the fecundity (natural end, i.e. openness to life)creates a problem.
I'm the mom.

I would say that those who choose to express their love in a physical union that may or may not produce a child are blessed by God. And those who choose to express their love in a way that definitely does not produce a child are also equally blessed.

And I would also say, speaking as a former Catholic, that celibate priests have a unique perspective on life, love, and sexuality that is worth exploring. There is much to be said for the larger viewpoint that those who do not share our common experience may hold. But it is not the whole Truth with a capital T that some would make it. And I would also say that those who choose to explore the more mundane aspects of human sexuality do not deserve to be sentenced death. Nor do they deserve to be sentenced to some other lifelong regret.

The fact is that we have required our young adults to remain in some pre-pubescent limbo, devoid of physiological imperatives, until the age of 26 or so. This is an economic overlay. I cannot afford to retire because I have 2nd mortgages to pay off so that my adult children can go to college. I'm not going to die any time soon because medical science has come too far to allow for that. So my children can't grow up. They have to remain under my control for decades. This is simply not feasible.

In fact, 200 years ago I'd have died shortly after the birth of my third child, for lack of antibiotics. But I'm still here, I have credit card debt, and I'm asking my adult children not to have sex.

WTF is wrong with that picture?
I am a student at cua, but I'm not Catholic and I have no personal issue with the use of "protection". However, I chose to attend The CATHOLIC University of America. I feel that when you choose to go to Cua you accept (or work within) the regulations that come with that choice.
You knew that if you went to a state school you could get birth control etc on campus, but you chose you walk to CVS.
I am NOT saying one side is right and the other wrong. All I'm saying is that you knew when you got accepted that these were the expectations of the school. I don't think it's acceptable to expect the school to change it's religious point of view/actions when you presumably knew coming in that this would be an issue, and still chose to attend.
"On another sea of giggles, more little black dresses totter by. Their beaux, perhaps optimistically, line their pockets like kids loading up on Halloween candy. 'Like, horny little fucks that are drunk right now,' mutters one of the Students for Choice, less than benevolently. 'They want them now.'"

Does this not strike anyone else as the blatant objectification of women? Does this not seem to be degrading them into drunken sexual objects? Can you really "choose" in such an inebriated state? And this is something we should enable why...? Sickening!
Yes, it is the blatant objectification of women. And no, these girls don't see anything at all wrong with being paraded in minidresses short enough to count their pubic hairs, with not so much as a shawl to cover them in 20 degree weather. Millimeters away from a wardrobe malfunction and indecency charges.

I was swathed in 4 layers of wool and freezing cold. And these girls are going to what? Prayer meetings? Playing Parcheesi with their parents? Every one of their dates was carrying a Pepsi bottle filled with clear liquid. I'm betting it was not water.

These girls are in danger of contracting diseases that will be with them for the remainder of their lives because the media has told them that they are *nothing* in sneakers. These girls have slathered on makeup with a garden trowel, and why? Because they think that attracting a man, however crass and "manly" is the be-all and end-all of human existence. These girls are drunk before they get on the train. And their parents, God bless them, are under the impression that their precious little girls are on Catholic ground. They are not. These girls are doing what their culture and biology demands of them.

These girls are not evil. These girls are having sex because that's what they are hard-wired and programmed to do. They're told day and night that they aren't pretty enough, sexy enough, skinny enough, shaved enough, or sophisticated enough to measure up to the ideal.

I saw the girls getting on the metro, and I saw what they were wearing, and I saw what they were drinking, and it's not water. These girls are at risk. I don't want them to get pregnant outside of a loving and supportive relationship where they are wanted, and valued, and loved. I don't want them to get herpes or HIV or warts or cancer. I don't think they should trade their beauty and dignity for a cheap-ass loser who thinks his orgasm is the only important thing. I don't want them to die because they haven't been around long enough to know any better yet.

They are beautiful. They are smart. They are important. They are young women. And they just need a little more time. Bless their hearts, but they need to take control of their lives and insist on a condom.

Two of my co-distributors told me that at least one of the girls they offered condoms to had told them that they preferred to let their dates decide about important matters like protecting them from the diseases that they might or might not be carrying, or the pregnancy they don't want to deal with. That's a shame. But when the mass media sells tummy tucks, eyelash medicines, antidepressants, breast augmetation, facelifts, laser hair removal, and 6" heels as the standard of "sexy", I think that's what's "sickening".

They're not whores. They're girls who have been totally manipulated and lied to by mass media. And so are you.
You should be handing out tracts that discuss the grave evil of fornication, and the fact that God desires all sex to take place in the marriage bed. A tract on the reality of hell might also be of help. Most importantly, if the tracts are too strong of an approach to be prudent, you should be taking these girls aside and talking to them, affirming them, and gently encouraging them to stop degrading themselves, how much God loves them, and how this kind of behavior is in conflict with their heavenly destiny. Instead, you enable the sin. This is a cooperation in their sin, in spite of your therapeutic rationalization that you are helping. Mental and physical health are both important, but spiritual health is the ultimate criterion, for that is eternal.
Thaddeus. I'm assuming you were serious, although it's hard to tell.

Presumably, a majority of those students are Catholic, and have been given the "sex without a ring and go to hell" lecture more than twice throughout their educations. One imagines that their parents provided them with some moral guidance and rules of behavior. Yet, there they were, all liquored up before the night's carousing had really even begun. One knows how the night will end up, and anyone on his/her knees is probably not going to be praying. All the tracts (seriously?), talks, affirmations etc. hadn't worked up to that point -- I doubt they were going to be all that effective that night.

Perhaps you are one of those who believe women need punishment for their sins, and believe an STD is just what God ordered? Or a baby perhaps? Wages of sin and all that?

I suggest you take to the street corners with your tracts and encourage young women to stop degrading themselves. And while you're at it, take a shot at encouraging the young men to do the same.
No one forced you to go to a university affiliated with religion...but if you do then you should respect that religion's beliefs...rather than play victim and protest against those beliefs. Even if you don't follow those beliefs...why the hell are you protesting something that you knew existed before you enrolled? And Mom...if the beliefs of the Catholic Church are so wrong then why did you let your baby go to school there? I guess it's easier to teach your kid to be a victim and the world should change for her...
It is important to remember that cua does offer some programs that are hard to find at other schools...that's why I'm at Catholic. So it could be that someone would choose to go for the program and not support the Catholic Church at all. I personally have little issue with the rules of the university, but even at cua they have every right to speak against things they don't agree with. If they are off campus handing out "protection" or tracts or anything else that is their business. If people didn't want them then there would be no market, but apparently people are taking them up on the offer...
I agree that you should choose carefully before attending a religiously affiliated school with whose morals you disagree. Protesting something you think is wrong is hardly playing a victim... it seems that these people saw something they thought was wrong and actually decided to do something about it. As long as they are off campus there should be no issue.

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