By Adam Frankel
We don’t need to look far to be reminded of the pressing nature of sexual health issues facing young people. Recent months have seen an outbreak of controversial statements by conservative leaders speaking against sex education and comprehensive access to contraception.
When promoting a culture where one’s sexuality is understood and embraced, rather than rejected, youth will make safer decisions and contribute to improving general public health. Sadly, the battle for liberating and promoting healthy sexual behavior continues to be played out in our own city.
A group of students at George Washington University has been working for nearly two years to convince the administration to install permanent condom dispensers in all student residence halls. Recognizing that our city faces epidemic levels of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, they thought GW ought to do more to protect the members of its own community. The goal was to ensure that all students had free access to condoms at all times, so that if they chose to be sexually active, they could protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. It was also a way to raise awareness about the important issues surrounding sexual health.
After receiving broad support from student organizations, community groups and Mayor Vincent Gray, the university agreed to a meeting with student organizers. In an e-mail response sent early last December, Provost Steven Lerman graciously stated his support for the initiative. Specifically, he requested the dean of students assist in creating “a detailed plan that could lead to implementation sometime in the spring semester.” His response was received with great enthusiasm among the students, who felt they had finally achieved their goal.
Soon after, the group met with Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller to discuss a proposed implementation strategy. They presented data on the increased rates of GW students seeking HIV testing and the need for condom accessibility to improve general STI prevention. They also highlighted the minimal cost of the initiative, given the city’s existing free condom distribution program. Above all, they stressed the importance of students’ ability to be able to safely and discretely obtain condoms whenever they needed them. Currently, they could only obtain free condoms at public events or from house staff members.
Disregarding the hard work of the students, and the extremely important nature of this project, administrators spent time critiquing the initiative. After discussing the figures in a meeting with Miller, he responded, saying, “Only one student out of approximately 800 who had been tested at student health during the last year was found to be HIV-positive.” This totally disregarded the fact that many students may not get tested at student health, but rather for privacy reasons use other free testing sites in the District, such as Whitman-Walker Health and Metro Teen AIDS. His deeply insensitive comment demonstrated his failure to understand that just “one student” was in itself too many. Whether it was one student, or 100 students, the university was refusing to acknowledge the profound impact that HIV has on a person’s life, and moreover, the vital role that community institutions can play in preventing infection.
Beyond the administration’s demonstrated cultural insensitivities, it failed to understand the grave and urgent nature of the issue at hand. They rejected the student-proposed plan, and instead suggested a pilot program that would charge students $2 for condoms they could purchase from vending machines. The idea seemed contrary to the students’ efforts and the city’s commitment to guaranteeing free access to condoms for all. It was an unacceptable response from such a well-endowed institution that could be reasonably expected to incur a minimal cost to promote safety and well-being among its constituents.
The university must recognize its deep connections to the greater D.C. community and immediately join the rest of the city in fostering a culture of safety and prevention. As the leader of this initiative, I see this effort as more than a trivial request by student activists. As a gay man, a proud member of the D.C. LGBT community and someone with friends and loved ones living with HIV, I understand the importance of sexual health. It is not about numbers or figures; it is about protecting human lives.
I hope you will join me in calling upon my university to remain true to its promoted image as a leader in diversity and student wellness. Please sign our petition to demand immediate action at www.bit.ly/GWcondoms, and follow our efforts at www.facebook.com/ColonialsforCondoms.
Adam Frankel is a junior at George Washington University and serves as diversity affairs chair of Allied in Pride, a campus LGBT rights group.