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

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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.”