The first week of my freshman year of college, I woke up sick to my stomach every morning. Intense nausea and weakness that would somehow disappear mid-afternoon, and return again the next morning without fail. I went to the student health center looking for answers, and when I told them my symptoms, the doctor asked me if I was pregnant. They believed what I had described was morning sickness. It’s not an unreasonable guess, but I told them I definitely wasn’t pregnant; I was a virgin. The doctor responded, “Oh, good for you!”
I didn’t analyze the situation too closely at the time, other than to remark, “Wow, that’s funny that they thought I was pregnant.” But thinking back, I’m struck by how inappropriate it is to compliment a young woman on her maintained virginity. I also think, what if I had been pregnant? Would they have described abortion as an option? Or would they have positioned adoption or motherhood as the only available choices?
I don’t consider myself to be religious. I have a few memories of going to church as a kid, mainly at Easter and Christmas, and I think I briefly attended Sunday school at our local church. The main thing I liked about church was the coffee and desserts they served after the service. While it has not greatly impacted my life, religion exercises immense influence over much of the world, whether that be through personal philosophies and behavior or larger structures of government and society.
I am entering my senior year at Georgetown, a Catholic university in Washington, D.C. I didn’t choose it for its Catholicism, but I do feel its subtle and not so subtle influences on campus life: in the church bells that chime every 15 minutes, in our theology course requirement, and in the Catholic imagery scattered across campus. But I think Georgetown’s Catholic foundations are most tangibly felt in the school’s attitude toward contraception and abortion.
Georgetown does not provide condoms on campus. If you go to the student health center, you may be able to get a birth control prescription, but only if you claim your need stems from a source other than its contraceptive purposes. I personally haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard that it also depends on which doctor you end up seeing; some are more ready to help, while others are reluctant. Georgetown student health insurance does cover birth control. To the best of my knowledge, the Georgetown University Hospital does not provide abortions, and Georgetown medical students are not given specific instruction on how to perform abortions but rather must specifically ask to learn about the procedure.
Students haven’t taken the university’s policies on contraception lying down. H*yas for Choice (HFC), a pro-choice, sex-positive, reproductive justice organization, works to provide direct sexual and reproductive health services and improve access to resources for people of all genders on Georgetown’s campus, as the About page of their website states. The resources HFC provides include free condoms, dental dams, lube, and emergency contraception, as well as comprehensive informational resources. Because the group is not recognized as an official club or financially supported by the university, they are prohibited from using the trademarked term “hoya” in their name, so their title includes an asterisk.
HFC has historically had a fraught relationship with the university. At its inception in 1991, when HFC was university subsidized, a group of alumni, students, and others brought a canon lawsuit against the university. They believed that the university should lose its Catholic status for providing funding to HFC. Though this lawsuit was unsuccessful, the university stripped funding and benefits from HFC 14 months after granting them.
More recently, Georgetown University Police Department officers have removed envelopes filled with condoms from HFC representatives’ doors, and they have prevented HFC members from tabling on a public sidewalk outside the university’s front gates. In 2018, a 15,000-signature petition was circulated online calling for university president John DeGioia to ban HFC. “The club’s pro-abortion advocacy, campus-wide distribution of contraceptives, and anti-Catholic message have no place on a Catholic campus,” the petition read.
HFC tables in a campus square designated as a “free speech zone,” which is where they are permitted to hand out condoms, provide information, and even accept donations. I tabled for HFC during my freshman and sophomore years, and I never knew what I’d encounter each week. Some students take condoms from us where we have them available, while others speed-walk past and avert their gaze. I’d heard stories of people approaching the table only to tell the students they were going to hell for advocating abortion. One day, an older man walked over, and I eyed the other students nervously. But then, he told us to keep up the good work and handed us a $20.
I chose to go to Georgetown knowing about its Catholic identity and policies as much as any incoming student could. It was neither a selling point nor a deterrent for me. But just because I knew Georgetown was a Catholic school doesn’t mean I have to accept all of their policies as right. It doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to protest against them and make my opinion known.
The impact of religion on sexual health and sexuality is by no means simple or monolithic. In order to learn more about how others have been impacted by religion or religious education, I reached out to the Make Muse team for their input.
Some of our bisexual team members talked about navigating the intersection of their religion and their sexuality. One team member said that religion “made coming to terms with [her] sexuality (in terms of being attracted to women and men, and just in terms of being horny!) very painful and shameful, which in many ways still persists today as [she] still feel[s] a lot of fear regarding any attraction [she has] that isn’t heterosexual.”
Another member came out as bisexual to her Sunday school teacher at a very early age. She was then held after Sunday school every week for the next few years and “repeatedly shown sections of the Bible that were anti-homosexuality or emphasizing the importance of a sanctified marriage in front of God.” She never told her parents but asked to switch schools, saying she wasn’t getting along with her classmates. “To this day, I still think those experiences affected me, in that I have difficulty forming romantic relationships with women,” she wrote.
Another staffer described feeling conflicted because she was taught that birth is a “miracle of life” and children are expected after marriage, but at the same time sex—the most common means of having children—is taboo or wrong. “We’re never taught that sex can be pleasurable, especially not for women. It’s tied almost exclusively to your ability as a birth giver almost like a task that you just check off your to do list. And by not incorporating sex into the conversation, people then curiously seek out what it is that’s so hidden,” she wrote.
Another team member has experienced Catholic education from elementary school to college. “Abortion was never explained to me until high school as a viable option and masturbating was really criminalized,” she wrote.
By 6th grade, she was exposed to a program called “the Catholic vision of love,” which enforced messages of abstinence and used STD statistics as a scare tactic. Every January, she and her classmates would have to “pray for the unborn children.” She was taught that masturbation and pornography were sins and received strong anti-abortion messages, encouraging abstinence or adoption as viable alternatives.
The student body, she wrote, was majority liberal and would argue with teachers on points they disagreed with. And her classmates began having oral sex in middle school, despite such restrictive sexual education. “There was definitely strong messaging not do certain things, but ultimately (in my case), people weren’t drinking the kool-aid. I think it really depends on the situation- if I were surrounded by people who all seriously believed that this was wrong, things probably would be different,” she wrote.
It’s difficult for me to make definitive conclusions about religion and sex. I do believe that Catholic teachings on homosexuality and sexuality breed intolerance and perpetuate a culture in which people are ashamed of and uneducated about their sexualities. However, I also acknowledge that this is easy for me to say because I am not personally religious. I was exposed firsthand to the influence of religion on sex educational policies only after coming to college. As a private institution, Georgetown has the right to make religion present and influential on its campus. But I see the real-life impediments these policies can pose to students’ sexual health and wellness.
Everyone has their beliefs, but these are mine. I believe that religious institutions can be large perpetuating forces of women’s shame. I believe that religious sex education is harmful in the long-run and has tangible impacts on people’s lives. But I also believe that fighting against the hold of something you’ve been told since you were a child is no easy feat. I believe that women should not be scolded or blamed for the conflict they may feel between their religion and their other beliefs or actions. I believe that religious women can be feminists. I believe that we need to recognize and make space for them.
I encourage all feminists to closely examine what religious beliefs you hold that could impact your feminism. Respect what other people think, but call out problematic behavior where you see it. That being said, I also urge feminists not to generalize feminist ideology without sensitivity to or understanding of the vast range of cultural practices and beliefs that exist across the world. These blanket principles alienate and silence, rather than unite. Educate yourself about religion, whether you hold religious beliefs or not. It’s too significant a force to be ignorant of.