We’ve covered sports and car parking: so what about sex?

As I pointed out in a post last year, it has been suggested that the three things a university President has to secure are ‘sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.’ Whatever about athletics and car parking, I had never actually been asked by anyone to arrange for sex for the students. On the whole my suspicion would have been that they don’t need much help in that department anyway. But then today, in the course of an interview, I was asked to express a view on the free availability of sex on university campuses.

IIt wasn’t really that different when I was a student. Or rather, it wasn’t that different on the campus. In Ireland as a whole there was no sex, or none anyone admitted to, and the days when a parish priest would walk amongst the dancers at a youth club with a ruler in hand, to ensure that the minimum distance between boy and girl of one foot was being observed, were not long over. But on the campus the attitude was ‘anything goes as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses’, and the contrast between the puritan outside and the free-and-easy inside was striking. However, we had a rule that no student in college accommodation could entertain overnight guests of the opposite sex – this became popularly known as the ‘anti-heterosexual rule.’ And then one day the then Vice-President of the Students Union announced publicly to the college discipline officer that he proposed to entertain a woman overnight, ending his rather well crafted letter with the words: ‘Having thus informed you of my intentions regarding my female bedroom companion for tonight, I now await your pleasure.’ The college officer wisely did nothing at all.

Fast forward to my term of office as President of DCU. About five years ago a Sunday newspaper ran an article on how various university students unions were advising their members on safe sex and promoting the availability of contraception. A couple of days later I received an email from a very upset member of the public who remonstrated with me that I should be taking decisive steps to ensure appropriate chastity on the campus, so that young people would not be led into temptation and immorality. I replied very politely, and I hope sensitively, but I pointed out that this was a horse that had bolted the stable a very long time ago and was certainly not about to come back.

Which brings me back to the interview today. I had to think for a moment on what I could and should say. While I do believe, as I have just pointed out, that it would be impossible, counter-productive and undesirable for a university to intervene in the private lives of students as long as these do not involve activities that are illegal, I am not however in the business of promoting sex either. Students will do what they have been doing, but equally they should not feel under any pressure to do so, or certainly not from me. And I felt it was important to make it clear that non-consensual sex was wholly unacceptable.

My correspondent of five years ago was of the opinion that universities, and university presidents in particular, had corrupted Ireland’s youth and had turned sex into a casual act of consumption rather than something more elevated within marriage. No doubt he was not alone in that view, but in the meantime we are living in a different society which, frankly, no longer accepts the view of sex as being just about procreation within marriage. University presidents would, even if they disapproved of this fundamentally, be completely unable to do anything about it. I believe that the more important campaign around sex and sexuality should now focus on exploitation and trafficking, and on the importance of treating people with respect in this as in other contexts. That would be worth the effort.

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10 Comments on “We’ve covered sports and car parking: so what about sex?”

  1. Steve Says:

    During one of my earlier stints in third level education I remember the weekly pontification given by a lecturer of ours on the dangers of promiscuous activities. There was a reverence for this particular lecturer – he was a gentleman – so it was tolerated.

    This particular IoT had a strong contingent of Opus Dei members also, who caused there own share of trouble, when it came to sexual activity and attempts to curtail same. Condom machines were regularly vandalized – machines purchased and installed by the Students’ Union. It quickly became too expensive for these machines to be replaced so SUs began a walk in service where you could get condoms, no questions asked.

    2001 will forever be know in Students’ Union circles as ‘The Year of the Glove’. This was when USI introduced its SHAG (Sexual Health and Guidance) packs – caused great dissatisfaction amongst the church going folk around the nation who thought the inclusion of the glove would lead young late-teen boys to engage in same sex experimentation. The Health Board at the time commended the supplying of the information, but Church leaders and the Rosary brigade were out in force, turning up in colleges across the country and flooding the airwaves with their proclamations of doom and corruption of out malleable youth!!

    Anyway, my point. I would agree that not many presidents feel the need, or believe they could influence students to curtail their desires. However do you believe that HEIs have a role to play in the protection of those who are still, in the eyes of the law, minors?

    For instance, the Grangegorman campus planned for DIT will include a school on the same grounds. How do we ensure that those children are not in any way exposed to more adult activities? Even during Open Days some less than responsible Students’ Unions have had inappropriate campaigns and posters littered around campuses.

    This being said first years too are often minors – do HEIs have a responsibility to these minors, or should (does) the law see them as adults due to their independent status as third level students and the fact they are considered mature enough at this stage in their life?

    Whilst sex is now an everyday topic for many (be it by luck or exposure to it in the media) and STI rates continue to rise in campuses does HEI’s not have some responsibility? And should it really be left up to the Students’ Union in each campus – a body for the most part run by a bunch of amateurs?

    In recent weeks we have seen the stories of student prostitution – not just amongst international students – but our home grown bunch as well. You acknowledge this is something, along with other forms of sexual exploitation that needs to be focused upon. What I find disheartening is the reaction there has been to these stories. What would you propose a university can do to focus on these issues?

    • Jilly Says:

      The age of consent in Ireland is 17. Our first years are never, to my knowledge, younger than this. Therefore their sex lives are none of our business. Colleges can usefully provide information and products to promote safe and consensual sex, but it is NOT their role to police their students’ private lives.

      • Steve Says:

        Never said it was. I do concede that first years are predominately 17+.

        What about students who become trapped by sexual exploitation? Does a college have a duty there? Is that really consensual sex? Some feminist thinkers would argue that it is the highest form of freedom for a woman, others would disagree.

        Policing students’ private lives is one thing – and an extreme at that – but then again do anti-social behaviour policies, established by many HEIs not police students’ private lives also? If a student is off-campus and behaves incorrectly, found to be in breach of this policy does the college have a legal right to step in? Does the adherence to such a policy and the consequences of not doing so have any legal weight? Are you not just punishing someone twice for a crime?

        In terms of sex and students – it’s going to happen – but I think a college should take a more proactive role in promoting responsibility – mind you if we had decent sex and sexuality education classes then we may not have this problem. Sexuality is hardly dealt with by schools – and many refuse to deal with same sex issues, creating a dangerous void of knowledge amongst young gay and lesbian kids and adults.

        Dare I say it, will someone please think of the children?

  2. Patrick Says:

    Ironically during my first year at DCU the then head of student services, Barry Kehoe if my memory serves me correctly, became outraged at the installation of a condom machine in the toilets of the Grattan Building. So enraged in fact that he allegedly ordered security to rip it from the wall. When informed by the student’s union that this would constitute criminal damage and that he would be liable to pay damages, he simply locked the toilets until the machine could be removed without damage… ah simple times!

  3. Steve Says:

    @Patrick:

    Would not surprise me! There was a lot of that in other colleges too. Colleges mostly leave this up to the students’ union – as a sign of Irish attitudes colleges would work hard and run many information campaigns on mental health campaigns etc. It seems to me that most colleges will only actively campaign on certain issues if they become topical, and it may garnish them a few headlines – promiscous sexual activity and destroy lives too – sexual diseases, unwanted pregnancy, self-esteem issues, mental health issues to name but a few. Sexual attitudes amongst students is important – no matter how uncomfortable it makes college staff – a responsible college would make the effort.

    • Jilly Says:

      And do you think that companies should become similarly involved in running campaigns and/or intervening in their employees’ sex lives? Whilst students are certainly not employees of colleges, the crucial point is that students are adults, who are entitled to privacy and a lack of hectoring about such topics.

      A lot of what you’re proposing would blur a crucial distinction between school and university. Treating university students as if they were minors is not only legally dubious, it would also undermine the independent thinking and development of self-governance which university is for. This is why the SU is exactly the right campus organisation to run sex education etc programmes.


    • Steve, I guess I would need to get my head around this – a responsible college would make *what* effort?

      • Steve Says:

        Hi Professor – a responsible college would make an effort to highlight to students that while they are adults, and the choice is theirs, that there are dangers (often unforeseen) that can result from indifferent and irresponsible sexual activity. I am not saying that a college should tell their students to be celibate – that would be crazy – but should encourage responsible behaviour like it would in other aspects in their lives, be it academic (through plagiarism awareness), alcohol consumption, the environment etc.

        Instilling a sense of responsibility in one’s actions surely is a common goal shared throughout academia? I just don’t think it a great leap from encouraging campaigns on road safety, mental health, drug use, plagiarism in one hand and to run on on sexual responsibility.

        NUIG has a very good community volunteer programme that impacts positively on student attitudes and social responsibility – in DCU we do have the Uaneen Module – which encourages active volunteer work on campus, and by extension work in the SVP Society would constitute good work in local communities, but its too inwardly focused – albeit still and excellent module.

        It is not a leap to say that irresponsible attitudes toward sex and sexuality has negative effects in later life – how you treat yourself and other partners, what values you instill in your children.

        I am merely stating a personal belief. It is not within the scope of a university or college to instill students with every moral and ethical value that they will need throughout their lives. They will get this from other institutions, from friendships and groups they subscribe too. But, this isn’t exactly a hard task.

        I think you hit the nail on the head – in your original post, and I echo it.

        “I believe that the more important campaign around sex and sexuality should now focus on exploitation and trafficking, and on the importance of treating people with respect in this as in other contexts. That would be worth the effort.”

        I am merely exploring the underlying issues – if students are involved in these areas you identify above should a university campaign on this?

  4. Steve Says:

    Companies participate in corporate social responsibility – this is what they would be engaging in with students – who, if you were to adopt the philosophy of some of the current leaders of higher level education, are the target market for such an endeavor. Instilling such a more responsible attitude towards sex and sexuality would have a significant positive impact beyond the walls of the campus – the ambition of all higher educational institutions.

    Please don’t think I am advocating that a college become a segregate parent while students are in college. University is indeed equally about personal development as educational attainment. Peer lead programmes, run by students’ unions are important, I think universities should actively encourage and support them with additional resources.

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    DCU has a good car park, it needs one because of its suburban location: I guess your students need to entertain themselves for the same reason? It’s the Updike effect.


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