[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series about sexual health information at Concordia and other colleges]
This was the second time in one day Joe Gilmore had been to the Kjos Health Center. He had walked in the first time and asked with confidence, “Can I get a condom?” receptionist told him that he could get one; however, he would have to come back in an hour because the nurse is the one who hands them out, and she was at lunch.
Condomless, Gilmore left the health center anxious for his return visit.
The second time Gilmore went to the health center, he walked straight to the receptionist window and repeated his earlier question, “Can I get a condom?”
The receptionist turned toward the nurse and said “He’s back.”
Gilmore felt uncomfortable as he was ushered into the next room and was told to wait.
He sat there, thinking to himself that the nurse was going to come in and give him condoms along with information on how to use them properly and send him on his way. When the nurse walked in, she had with her one condom.
The only education about sex that is offered on Concordia’s campus is at the Kjos Health Center and is provided by the nurse and the nurse practitioner; however, it is not openly offered. If students want information about sex or want contraceptives, they have to initiate the conversation. The encounters with sexual health accessibility a student receives at Concordia is unlike that at surrounding colleges.
“It used to be seen that providing this type of information or condoms was enabling premarital sex,” said Kathy Benson, health care administrator at the Kjos Health Center. “I’ve been here for decades and when I first started we didn’t give out birth control pills.”
It was only within the last couple of years, according to Benson, that condoms were offered at the health center. Those condoms are given to students after having a conversation first.
According to Benson, sex is more than just handing someone a condom and telling them to be safe: there needs to be an established knowledge of the significant other. When a student asks Benson for a condom, she leads a conversation for that student to understand their relationship.
“I ask them about what has been their established expression between the two,” she said. “I ask them how much do they know about each other. Even if they are in a monogamous relationship, how many partners have they had before this relationship?”
When Gilmore went to the health center at the end of January, he was expecting to get information about how to use the condoms as well as statistics of condom use, including how effective they are if used with other birth control methods.
“But I was given more of the ‘parent speech’,” he said.
The discussion between Gilmore and Benson lasted for about five minutes, and Gilmore said he felt like he was talked down to. He received the condom and left.
“It was really awkward,” Gilmore laughed. “We’re in college. We’re adults and we can make our own decisions.”
The idea protecting a person from sex and warning them of the dangers makes sex seem like a bad thing. This idea has been around for quite some time, said Natalie Peluso, assistant professor of sociology at Concordia.
“We have to look at the broader social culture surrounding sex and sexuality,” Peulso said. In today’s society, the culture of sex “comes down to two things: One, sex is viewed as bad. It’s understood as a negative social force that can destroy society. Two, it is assumed that sex is something to be feared and is something that needs to be controlled.”
According to Peluso, sociologists see that sexual material in the media and popular culture should suggest that sex is viewed in a positive light.
“There is still an underlying belief that sex is inherently dangerous, something that we must protect ourselves against,” Peluso said.
In the 2010 College Student Health Survey, of the nearly 700 Concordia students who responded to the survey, 55.2 percent of them have been sexually active within the last 12 months. Of those who are sexually active, nearly 67 percent of students reported that the last time they had sexual intercourse they used a condom. 49 percent use birth control pills, and around 3 percent have used emergency contraceptives.
“Students seem to be progressively making better choices about sex,” said Paul Wraalstad, the director of student programming and facilities. “But I don’t think that we spend a lot of time in our general Wellness [class] on campus talking about sex.”
Talking about sex may take many forms from many different mediums. A few blocks to the east of Concordia, Minnesota State University-Moorhead has educators to inform the campus about sexual and overall health.
Lynn Peterson, coordinator for sexual assault services and for the Wellness Education Program at MSUM, is in charge of the campus’s Wellness Educators, 10 students who are trained to discuss issues openly without imposing judgment.
The information the educators provide the students is not a set program developed by the college policy. Wellness Educators plan programs and events within the residence halls and with classes. It is from the feedback given during focus groups that the educators add or tweak what information is going to be shared.
One program at MSUM is called the C-Card—the Condom Card.
“[Resident Assistants], if they want to participate, can stick this small poster on their door,” Peterson said, holding a 5-by-7 inch poster displaying a stack of unwrapped colorful condoms. “Students know if they see this poster, the RA will have condoms and can give instruction how to use them.”
If the RA wishes not be a part of the C-Card program, they do not have to be. Students can also go to Hendrix Health Center at MSUM to buy 12 condoms for $1.
“There are some college students who don’t have a car and don’t have the money to buy a $10 pack of three condoms,” Peterson said. “Here, they can walk in, pay for the condoms, grab some free lubrication and a card to how to properly use them and leave.”
MSUM is a part of the Great American Condom Campaign sponsored by Trojan, and every year the wellness education program receives 1,000 free condoms ranging from Fire and Ice to Ecstasy condoms.
With the condoms, students are encouraged to take a few free samples of lubrication. Proper use is taught by the educators.
“If you don’t give them lube, students might use Vaseline,” Peterson said. “Any petroleum-base jellies could actually weaken the condom and make it ineffective.”
The basket for the lubrication samples are placed next to the condoms at the front desk at Hendrix Health Center.
Peterson said that the Wellness Educators are not promoting sex. They are promoting the prevention and protection of the participants.
“Students really want information about health and sex-related issues,” Peterson said. “We try and give what the students want or need and make that information accessible.”
North Dakota State University makes access to information about sex accessible through the Wallman Wellness Center and through Wellness Education Leaders who promote the same ideas as MSUM’s Wellness Educators.
“We give presentations throughout the year to the residence halls, Greek Life and other student organizations,” said Stacey Holm, health educator at NDSU. “It is our job to educate students.”
The education of students on student health (not just about sexual health) is done with the assistance of Wellness Education Leaders at NDSU.
Throughout the year, the WELs set up booths, programs and events across campus to educate students about the seven dimensions of well-being: emotional, spiritual, environment, physical, social, occupational and intellectual.
According to Holm, everyone needs to be healthy in all aspects to be a healthy individual.
Among information, the wellness center also offers testing for sexually transmitted diseases and infections as well as HIV/AIDS.
“[NDSU] is a HIV-funded testing site,” Holm said. “Because we are a testing site, we receive free condoms that are available to the students.”
According to Casey Peterson, associate director for residence life staffing at NDSU, RAs have to be actively involved with their floor by participating in leadership, academics and wellness. Through the wellness portions, RAs can work with the WELs and plan a sex education program for their floor.
“We don’t give formal training to RAs about sex education,” Peterson said. “RAs choose what type of program they want to include for their wellness portion.”
Some programs include sex in the dark, pizza and porn and sex-tac-toe: all of which provide information about sex, addictions and instructions and can be accessed through the wellness center.
During Concordia’s RA training before fall semester, there is a session in the health center about the services the campus offers. There is no further sex education training required of the RAs.
“We really want our RAs to be community builders,” said Jasi O’Connor, director of residence life at Concordia. “We don’t require RAs to provide information about sex partly because it’s an issue not every student would be comfortable talking about.”
According to O’Connor, some RAs do prefer to be a resource of information, especially if a resident with questions would feel more comfortable speaking with a peer than with someone at the health center.
Joshua Hermerding, a junior, was an RA on the second floor of Hoyum during the 2009-10 school year. Using his own funds, he bought condoms and told his residents they were available to them if necessary.
“I am completely, 100 percent behind safe sex,” Hermerding said. “I feel that many of the guys on my floor would have felt uncomfortable going to Kjos Health Center and asking for condoms when they could just grab a handful without being questioned.”
Hermerding believes that if someone requests a condom, the response “should not be anymore than ‘Yes. Here.’”
With his openness, Hemerding felt he took the stigma away from both talking about and having sex.
“They were free to walk in and grab what they needed, with no pressure from me, other floormates or anyone else in the college,” Hermerding said. “And that’s just the way it should be.”
Concordia does not offer any type of sexual health program through the health center or through the wellness education that students are required to take along with a physical education course during their four years at the school.
According to Larry Papenfuss, director of athletics and chair of health and physical education, in the block wellness course, instructors spend, at most, one day talking about sexually transmitted diseases and infections and one day talking about date and acquaintance rape. The other class days are devoted to educating the students about physical health and about alcohol.
“It is difficult to carve out a space in the curriculum to talk about sex education,” Papenfuss said. Plus, he included, sex education might be considered a moot point. “Students say that they have taken this in high school, why take it in college?”
In the 2010 College Student Health Survey, at least 2.4 percent of sexually active student has contracted a sexually transmitted disease. However, according to Concordia, this number is not significant enough to raise alarms.
“We’re not naïve about the sexual issue on campus,” Papenfuss said.
Papenfuss added he does not see sexual issues being addressed on campus unless the problem becomes larger, raising a “sense of urgency.”
“We could do more on both sides of the issue,” Wraalstad said. “Education about abstinence may be more beneficial to some and education about protection more beneficial to others, but I think that more education should be done.”
[Editor’s note: Part 2 of this story will run in next weeks issue of The Concordian. It will address the ELCA, other church-affiliated colleges’s approach to sexual health and Cobber views on the current approach to sex education at Concordia]