Credit: Doug Boehm

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If there’s one thing Catholics hate more than sex, it’s talking about it. And yet every year, the Catholic University of America (CUA) assumes the immodest task of informing 3,000 undergraduate students of all the sexual activities banned from its holy land.

The “Sexual Misconduct” clause of the university’s Code of Student Conduct prohibits students from engaging in “[p]hysical contact of a sexual nature that is unwanted by either party and/or that is disruptive to the university community.” Weighing in as “disruptive”: “any sexual expression that is inconsistent with the teaching and moral values of the Catholic Church.”

As the official U.S. university of the Catholic Church, it’s no surprise that CUA’s Code of Student Conduct is synced with the Catechism. But applying church doctrine to campus life can cause even a university spokesperson to stumble.

“We are the national university of the Catholic Church, so we follow all the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that is made very, very clear,” says university spokesperson Victor Nakas. When asked which specific behaviors are insufficiently Catholic, Nakas defers to doctrine. “I’m a Catholic, and I’m not exactly sure there’s any debate about what’s permitted,” Nakas says. “Have you read the Catechism? Because the different teachings of the church are spelled out in great detail and in great nuance in the Catholic Catechism.”

For undergraduate students less schooled in church doctrine than the spokesperson for the Catholic University of America, Nakas agreed to get more specific:

Premarital sex: “I can tell you right now that that is not allowed.”

Condoms: “Condoms are not allowed on the Catholic campus.”

Masturbation: “I don’t think that that’s a debatable issue. That’s something that would be clearly proscribed by Catholic teaching.”

Kissing: “I know of no restrictions on that.”

Men kissing: “That—I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve never seen anything about two men kissing. I’ll have to get back to you on that one. Of course, in different cultures, in other cultures, it is acceptable for men to kiss each other, as a greeting or what have you,” says Nakas. “It’s seen as something that’s very much within the cultural milieu.”

Nakas never followed up with the official Catholic word on men kissing. In an e-mail, he clarified that “CUA supports the teachings and moral values of the Catholic Church without reservation and in their entirety, including the teaching that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage,” and that “[i]ncidents are reviewed on a case by case basis.” He made one other thing clear: “no followups, please.”

Deference to the catechism spares Catholic administrators from the awkward enterprise of referring to masturbation, condoms, or any other specific of a typical undergraduate’s sex life. What the “great nuance” of the catechism fails to address is how sins of the flesh will be policed in a community of 18-to-21-year-olds newly emerged from beneath their parents’ roofs. After all, violations to the student code can’t be absolved in typically Catholic fashion, with forgiveness administered privately after confession to a priest. At the Catholic University of America, your sins are subject to judicial review.

How can a university that can barely even acknowledge sex enforce a sex policy?

By policing everything but.


Fornication is a carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.

The Catholic University of America’s punishment for student premarital sex fits the crime: “It was laid out in no uncertain terms,” says one 2007 graduate. “If you do it, you’re screwed.”

How many Catholic students are getting screwed? In the 2006–2007 school year, CUA recorded 282 alcohol violations, 42 disorderly conduct violations, 14 drug violations, seven harassment violations, and zero violations of the sexual misconduct policy. (Catholic hasn’t released sexual misconduct tallies for any other year.)

Catholic University’s failure to nab even a single coed with his pants down can be attributed to an oddity of campus culture. Under Catholic doctrine, sinners are encouraged to tell on themselves, but not on others, meaning the university has a big problem cultivating snitches.

CUA’s anti-sex indoctrination begins at freshman orientation, where administrators inform incoming students that campus sex is punishable with penalties ranging from probation to expulsion. But the real education begins in the residence halls, where chastity protection is delegated to the most pious. “We had a name for them: the God squad,” says Peter, a recent alum who practiced premarital sex in the dorms for four semesters. “You know, the ones who came to Catholic because they want to go to church seven days a week and go to confession all the time and drink the blood of Christ on Sundays.”

Throughout the year, the God squad actively promotes the religious element in the residence halls. Each upperclassman dorm is outfitted with a student minister. Prayer groups meet weekly. Dorm confessionals are held once each semester, during Advent and Lent. Every year, priests circulate the halls, offering to bless each room. Last spring, CUA’s Chastity Outreach group, which sends wait-until-marriage advocates to local middle and high schools, began reaching out to students on its own campus as well. Participation in on-campus Catholicism is strictly voluntary—and not exactly popular. “There’s a very big social chasm between those God-squad kids, who are very religious, and those that are a lot more liberal in their beliefs,” says Peter. “I’m sure there was a handful of students from each dorm who would do that stuff. But it wasn’t exactly the thing to do on a Thursday night—oh shit, guys, the priest is coming, we have to go down to confess our sins!

With students blowing off confession en masse, it’s no wonder that more public sins—like premarital sex—don’t get aired via official channels. “That stuff, obviously, happens behind closed doors,” says Liz Henaghan, a 20-year-old junior who works as a Resident Assistant (RA) in a freshman dorm. “The times when I have had to address the sexual misconduct policy, it has been because I noticed something, not because anyone explicitly told me that a violation had occurred.”The one program CUA hasn’t implemented in the dorms is an incentive for reporting less-than-chaste neighbors. “I’ve never had anyone from the campus ministry come up to me and say, ‘Bobby and Suzie are hooking up in the lounge, can you make them stop?’” says Henaghan. “I actually haven’t had any experience with tattletales, beyond ‘They’re playing the music too loud, can you ask them to turn it down?’”

Officially, the Catholic University of America mandates snitching. The Code of Student Conduct states that “[s]tudents who anticipate or observe a violation are expected to remove themselves from participation and are encouraged to report the violation.” But the campus contingent most interested in maintaining chastity is actually discouraged from tattling. Student ministers are advised not to reveal personal information about the coeds they counsel. “They counsel that person confidentially, unless they hear of any danger,” says Henaghan—and consensual sins of the flesh don’t cut it. The most devout squad members, at least, are easy to identify: “There was a kid who used to walk around campus barefoot, no shoes on, because that’s how Jesus walked. Four years of that,” says Peter.

Even those most committed to the chastity cause admit that on-campus sexual transgressions are inevitable. Since implementing a sex education program in the dorms, CUA’s Chastity Outreach group has softened its strict anti-sex message for the college set. “Chastity isn’t about a list of do’s and don’ts,” member Karen Mahowald told campus online newsletter “InsideCUA” when asked whether sex and love can be compatible outside of marriage. Senior Jonathon Meyer was more direct: “None of us perfectly lives out our call to chastity,” he told the outlet.

RAs, too, are known to practice forgiveness for sins committed on their territory. Consistent with Catholic tradition, sex isn’t sex at the Catholic University of America if nobody knows about it. “Most RAs were actually fine with students breaking the [misconduct] policy as long as you didn’t do anything that would bring attention to them,” says Tom McIntyre, a 2003 graduate. Adds Peter: “[Most RAs] wouldn’t bust your balls about the rule. They would just look the other way. Their policy was: If they don’t see it or hear it, they don’t say anything.”

RAs who do happen to observe infractions can still sidestep the policy by policing closely related but less-serious rules. The zero “sexual misconduct” violations recorded in the 2006–2007 school year were complemented by 252 recorded violations of “University Regulations,” which include rules governing the residence halls. Obvious sex violations are routinely coded instead as “visitation policy” violations. According to the school’s residential policies, students must vacate classmates’ rooms by midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends, and a “CUA student may not be an overnight visitor in a room in which he/she does not live, at any point in time.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone getting kicked out of school or even getting written up for having sex,” says Peter. “Usually, the infraction is called ‘being on the wrong floor.’”

(Illustration by Doug Boehm)

The punishment-with-a-wink allows RAs to regulate egregious behavior without unduly impacting students’ lives. “They understand that this is somebody’s college career riding on the fact that sleeping with your girlfriend is prohibited in the student handbook,” says Peter. “So you get the noise violation instead of the girl-in-your-room violation, or the visiting violation instead of the girl-in-you-room violation, or the open container violation instead of the girl-in-your-room violation.”

The campus silent treatment helps to accommodate even the most flagrant violations of policy. One male student says he successfully camped out in the female wing of his girlfriend’s on-campus dorm for an entire week, fornicating the entire time. “I was basically living there—I used the showers and stuff, too,” he says. “Once we’re in the room, it was easy—we could lock the door and close the curtains…but her hallway was all female, so it was kind of funny when I’d walk into her room and pass her hall mates. They never would say anything, but it was obvious. We all knew that I wasn’t allowed to be there.”

For some, the anti-sex policy can actually add a welcome challenge to routine campus conquests. “The fact that you’re not allowed to do it on campus makes it a little bit more fun,” says the student. “We’ve done it in places that are inappropriate in general,” he says. “We’ve done it in the Pryz [student center]. We’ve done it in the dorm shower. The rules can be annoying, but you can also get into that danger of being caught.”

###NEXT PAGE: Masturbation, Contraception, and Men Kissing###


By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”

Not everyone is as clear on the theological rules of the bedroom as the university spokesperson. After the policy was enacted in 2002, student Kevin Joyce wrote a satirical letter to the student newspaper, the Tower, suggesting that Catholic also outlaw masturbation with sex in order to fully comply with the Catechism.

“Recently, our university has implemented a new ‘No Sex Policy,’ but they have forgotten to include one necessary appendage— a ‘No Masturbation Clause.’ After all, isn’t sex with oneself still sex?” he wrote. “Students who are caught masturbating or suspected of masturbating would then receive a penalty, and depending upon the severity, could also face expulsion or suspension. In this way we can completely rid our campus of any sexual deviance whatsoever.”

Hey, jackoff—the anti-masturbation rule is already on the books.

While the sexual misconduct policy hasn’t done much to deter on-campus self-pleasure, it has helped keep masturbators anonymous. One 2007 alum, who wished to remain anonymous, denied that the sex policy discouraged any Catholic University students from genitally expressing themselves, solo or otherwise. “No. Not at all,” he says. “Not even a little bit.”

“Are you serious?” one 2003 alum, also anonymous, responded when asked if students denied themselves self-pleasure. “No. No. I don’t see how that would ever be enforced.”

“No,” one current student says. “Absolutely not.” He wouldn’t give his name, either.


“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.

Though the Catholic University of America shuns traditional forms of contraception, it does offer one morally consistent birth control option. One alumnus, who arrived on campus in 1999, remembers the option vividly. “It was my freshman year. I had just gotten to campus a couple weeks before. And the only thing my RA begged everyone to attend was this talk on Natural Family Planning,” she says.

“This husband-and-wife team came to my dorm lobby and told us all how to avoid pregnancy naturally—by going in and measuring your mucus levels.” The vaginal observation, of course, was to be strictly within the context of marriage. According to the couple, man and wife could have sex for pleasure as long as they scheduled carnal sessions outside of a woman’s fertile period. “They told us that we didn’t always have to have sex—sometimes you could just watch a movie,” she says. The alum, who identifies as “Catholic but not religious,” says she was “shocked” by CUA’s Catholic character when she first arrived. “They never advertised it that way to me,” she says. “I mean, I had never even heard of Natural Family Planning before I got on campus. I was like, what the fuck is that?”

Though Natural Family Planning continues to receive on-campus lip service (Chastity Outreach includes the option in its spiel), the ban on other forms of contraception is less exhaustively discussed. “They never explicitly told us about that,” Peter says of Catholic’s on-campus condom ban. “That’s something that you’d figure out after the first couple months, when you realize that the student convenience store doesn’t sell them.”

It doesn’t take long for students to zero in on the closest condoms to Catholic University: They’re stacked discreetly behind the counter of the 7-Eleven on Hawaii Avenue NE. The convenience store offers trios of either Trojan-ENZ lubricated condoms or Trojan Magnums for $3.99 a pack. Students who wish to secure even more convenient rubbers just need to know the right people.

Each semester, 500 Trojan condoms arrive on Catholic’s campus in a nondescript package. The contraband comes courtesy of the Great American Condom Campaign, which distributes 1 million condoms each year to more than 1,500 activist distributors across the country.

When Stephen Sobhani started the campaign out of his apartment in 2005, the Catholic University of America was one of the first campuses to come on board. The first distributor, a male junior at the university, “signed up right off the bat,” says Sobhani. Sobhani provided him with 100 prophylactics printed with the campaign’s logo, “a kind of flag penis that we lovingly called ‘the Fenis,’” Sobhani explains. “The school, obviously, hadn’t authorized that.”

The Great American Condom Campaign specifically targets schools with on-campus bans or limited accessibility to condoms, boasting that some of its distributors are “even risking suspension or expulsion” by participating. Even among college campuses with complete condom bans, Catholic University’s policy is particularly difficult to navigate. Georgetown University contraception providers are allowed to distribute condoms within the confines of the campus’ “Red Square,” a designated free-speech zone. At Chicago’s DePaul University, where condom distribution was banned in 2005, students pass out prophylactics on a public street just off campus, at a table monitored by a university security guard.

Catholic University distributors are forced to invent less public approaches—usually, spreading the word through networks of friends. “They were very clever in handing out their condoms. They had their own little system of doing it,” says Sobhani of the students he worked with at Catholic. “They were so secretive—but ‘secretive’ makes it sound like they were doing something wrong. They were just very discreet.”

Distributors, of course, take care to steer clear of the God squad. “One thing our Catholic distributor told us was that he was less concerned about being busted by administrators and more concerned about being busted by his peers—by some of the more pious students,” says Sobhani. “Before Catholic, we had never heard that. The fear was always that an administrator would bust you.”

The original distributor has since graduated, but the Great American Condom

Campaign, now administered through Advocates for Youth, currently reports SafeSites at six D.C. campuses, including Catholic University. Though it’s clear that 500 condoms a semester are arriving at one Catholic University student’s door, current distributors behave like good Catholics in one way: They aren’t talking publicly.

Condoms are exchanged a bit more openly at off-campus functions. At one such party, organizers offered a booze-and-birth-control deal for $2: “We sold two shots—one for yourself, and one for someone else—plus a free condom,” says one alum. The condoms came courtesy of a crafty underground distributor. “A friend of mine went down to Planned Parenthood, saying she was from GW,” she says. “She was even afraid to tell Planned Parenthood where she was from.” A Planned Parenthood rep assures Catholic students they needn’t obscure their campus origins to secure condoms. “Our policy is that people should have access to education and to condoms, to prevent sexually transmitted diseases,” says Tim Wahlers, the vice president for development for Planned

Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. “We do not follow the policies of Catholic University. We follow the policies of Planned Parenthood, which are based in science.”

Speaking of science, a 2001 survey conducted by Catholics for Choice revealed that the university’s medical center does offer contraception to student patients—though only “for medical purposes.” A call to the center last week confirmed the option is still available.


Though not covered by the Catechism, this is very much within the cultural milieu, according to the CUA administration.

###NEXT PAGE: Sexual Assault###


Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.

Let’s play a little game of “one of these things is not like the other.” It’s a multiple choice. The “sexual misconduct” policy outlaws:

a. premarital sex

b. condoms

c. masturbation

d. rape

At Catholic University, “Sexual Misconduct” is defined as “[p]hysical contact of a sexual nature that is unwanted by either party and/or that is disruptive to the university community.” Outlawing both consensual and nonconsensual sex in the same sentence is one way to make the seriousness of your anti-sex policy clear—but it also downgrades nonconsensual sex to any other youthful indiscretion. When students are never allowed to consent to sex on campus, how is truly nonconsensual sex punished?

(Illustration by Doug Boehm)

Despite its prohibition of all manner of sexual contact, Catholic University reports single-digit sexual assault figures in most school years. In 2001, the first year the rule was in place, Catholic University reported two sexual assaults on campus. Since then, it’s reported 11 more, peaking in 2006 with four reported assaults. Some of these incidents involve less-than-pious strangers coming on to campus to forcibly compromise the chastity of the student body. Other sexual assaults on campus have originated closer to home.

Last year, two students filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court against the university—and each other—after engaging in on-campus premarital sex.

It was spring semester, 2008. A freshman girl and a freshman boy were living in adjacent dorms in Catholic University’s Centennial Village, a gated collection of red-brick residence halls that circle around a central wooden cross. According to the girl’s lawsuit, the two met at an off-campus lacrosse party in February of 2008, then embarked on a traditional undergraduate relationship—they started hooking up. After the party, they returned to the lacrosse player’s dorm room, where the girl’s lawsuit finesses that “they engaged in romantic and intimate relations.” The pair exchanged numbers and sporadically “spent time with each other.”

On April 5, the girl again attended a lacrosse party with a few friends, knowing the boy would be there. The girl’s lawsuit details how she prepared for the encounter. She started off the night by consuming “between ten and fifteen shots of vodka in her friend’s dorm room.” When she arrived at the party, she continued to drink until “she started to feel overwhelmingly nauseous and sick.” She vomited on the lawn. Unable to form complete sentences or walk straight, she attempted to reenter the party to find her friends.

That’s when she saw the boy, who had come to the party with a few of his friends from home. The crew draped her arms over their shoulders and walked her back to campus. They brought her up the dormitory stairs and onto an all-male floor. The girl, the boy, and his friends entered his bed-room together. What happened next boils down to they-said, she-said.

A few days later, the girl contacted Catholic University’s Department of Public Safety (DPS). According to her lawsuit, she provided DPS a report of the incident and submitted to a medical examination at the University Health Center. The exam “revealed obvious sexual trauma.” On April 23, the D.C. Police Department issued an order of no-contact to the boy. On April 29, the girl attempted suicide. On April 30, the university relocated the boy to another dorm. Four months passed before the sexual misconduct case was presented to a university board for judicial review. The boy was expelled from school.

The girl claims that the sex was nonconsensual. The boy claims the sex was consensual—merely “inconsistent with the teaching and moral values of the Catholic Church.” As far as Catholic University is concerned, both students’ scenarios describe serious student violations of university policy. And so both students are suing the university on the grounds that it mishandled their sexual misconduct cases. “Catholic’s policies on paper and as stated on their Web site seem to really take this stuff seriously,” says Spencer Hecht, the girl’s lawyer. “One of the problems we’ve found is that they’re not practicing what their policies are stating.”

Hecht has a point. The university’s conduct rules border on the unenforceable. But here’s a case where a modicum of collective morality regarding sexual boundaries would have gone a long way—especially in light of the details. According to both student lawsuits, not only did several boys engage in group sex with an intoxicated girl, but they did it with the dorm room door open. Several other students walked through the alleged crime scene as it occurred. The boy’s lawsuit even claims that another student, “Joe,” later joined in the sexual misconduct by having solo sex with the girl following the group infraction. “Joe,” too, didn’t bother to close the door.

The campus reaction was befitting a freshman sex scandal. According to the boy’s lawsuit, the boys, the girl, Joe, and the witnesses weren’t the only students to hear about the incident. The girl, the suit alleges, boasted about the sexual exploits the next day. Within two days, the incident was public knowledge. According to the boy’s suit, the girl “received a computer message on her Facebook webpage from another male student of Catholic University.” The message was an insult in the form of a riddle. It read: “fill in this quote….I’m here for the…”. When the girl showed the message to her friends, they informed her “that the quote was a derogatory statement regarding [her] perceived promiscuity.”

According to the girl, even university officials caught wind of the incident. In a meeting with the university’s Department of Public Safety, Hecht says, a DPS official told the girl that they had received “an anonymous e-mail” written the day following the incident which “referenced our client and said something needed to be investigated,” says Hecht. “No timely investigation occurred.”

The case drives at the breach between what the CUA sex policy purports to do and what it actually does. The group sex, the open doors, the witnesses, the retellings, the Facebook messages, and even the anonymous university tipster—on a prudish campus such as Catholic’s, such an event should prompt a modern-day inquisition. “Clearly, in the context of this set of facts, there were lots of people who knew about it. But no timely action was taken,” Hecht says. According to a CUA spokesperson, the university denies the claims made against it but declines to comment on pending litigation.

The legal mess over the incident is starting to sort itself out: The girl reached an undisclosed settlement with CUA this week, though she hasn’t withdrawn her claims against the boy. The boy’s case, too, is pending. If the case progresses, it will put the Catholic University of America in an uncomfortable position: Whether or not the student claims carry weight, the university will finally be forced to talk about sex.