Laura Cullen analyses contraceptive culture and its place within UCD

As troops of fresh faced first year students trundle through the gates of UCD, the atmosphere around campus is one of excitement, anticipation and potential. Many of these first year students have taken on the arduous struggle of the Irish Leaving Cert and have successfully come out the other end. Their hopes are unbounded as they try to digest such a vast new step in their lives – the step into University. Fresher’s week has just ended, and it is universally regarded as a wonderful week of vibrancy. Societies come out of the dark, and desperate for a higher grant this year, they try and sell themselves. Most societies offer students a goody bag with various free items in it, like pens, leaflets, t-shirts and… condoms. Yes, those small rubbers that makes life so much easier. But are the widespread availability of condoms, especially to first year’s, such a good idea? Are they really a necessary initiation into college life? And are they doing more harm then good?

The amount of free condoms that are given out during Fresher’s week is quite unbelievable. Undoubtedly, most students remember emptying out their first year goody bags and seeing about ten condoms, if not more, fall out. This means students are being inundated with reminders of sex. Their university hopes are quickly being warped into a cauldron in which sex is placed at the epicentre. What kind of a message is this giving first year students? How can anyone argue that this kind of overtly explicit message is not harmful? It is objectively telling students how they should behave on a night out. It is shoving drink under their noses and condoms into their pockets. This is their initiation into the brilliant hallmark of university life. Their first tastes of so called ‘higher education’.

Many will now raise the objection of ‘Safe Sex’. What is wrong with providing first year students with free condoms if it is prompting safe sex? Surely it is better that condoms are used so pregnancies will be prevented and STI’s will not spread. Let us scrutinise that particular argument.  The question must be asked – what kind of message are all these free condoms sending first year students? And what kind of pressure is it putting them under? The message is pretty clear. It is go out and have sex. A condom does not say ‘safe sex’ as much as it says ‘sex’! The pressure it is putting young 17 and 18 year olds under is crippling. And the message is succinct – if you are a virgin – go out and lose your virginity quick, but use a condom while you are at it.

This, of coarse, is a very topical subject at the moment. Especially, with the introduction of the ‘Affordable Healthcare Act’ in the United States. The story of the distribution of free condoms to 12 year old students in the US School – Springfield MA, also received wide coverage. It seems as though the way to solve the problems that sex is creating is to throw condoms at people, and even children. Instead of talking to students about the pressures of sex and how all encompassing this pressure can weigh down upon an 18 year old, and alerting them to their choice when it comes to sex, UCD aims to provide free condoms to students in order to eliminate any unfortunate accidents and to essentially tell students abstinence is not really regarded. It is assumed all first year students will be having rampant sex. It also paints this erroneous picture as a right and appropriate advocacy.  It is clear that the wrong problem is being focused on. If the problem of the pressures of sex as well as the disproportionate level of importance with which sex is given within university cultural life could be addressed, then students could really have more choice in the matter. Maybe then they would be in a better situation to refuse a free condom that is hauled at them. At the moment unfortunately, they are not being allowed to make their own minds up. It seems as though everyone has already thought this one through, and the answer is in the bottom of your Fresher’s bag.

A recent survey done by the ‘International journal of STD and AIDS’ showed that 79% of young adults entering university are not sexually active. What this means is that this 79% will feel under over-whelming amounts of pressure during Fresher’s week and afterwards when condoms are being flung at them from every direction. Would it not be a better idea to distribute condoms in a particular part of campus, a place where students can purposely go to attain them if wanted. That way, they do not have to be placed in every student’s fresher’s bag.

The flippant disposal of condoms also points to a deeper societal problem. We are living in a ‘Contraceptive Culture’ at the moment. Every problem has a quick get out clause and each pestering inconvenience contains an easy escape route. It seems as though contraception is just another ‘escape route’ among the many that are blinding us to responsibility. There is always an easy way out, and a quick fix in order to shirk all responsibility. While many will disagree with this article, and will say that a university is the one place on earth where condoms are needed most urgently, the argument needs to be regarded from another angle and turned in on it-self. Perhaps the ‘hook up’ culture we have here in UCD is accentuated considerably by these little initiatives that the societies have going. Initiatives like free condoms. They provide a milieu of these to first year students and then pioneer campaigns about how dangerous the hook up culture on campus is becoming. There is an innate contradiction there. We are telling students to be careful of STI’s yet condoms are only 80% effective against these.

Freshers Week places a superfluous emphasis on sex. A university as big and vast as UCD will undoubtedly place an enormous amount of pressure on students as it is. Let’s not place any more pressure on them than what is necessary. Each student grows into his or her own university experience, and each student will have a unique path to follow. For some, obtaining a hand- full of free condoms is exactly what they are looking for. But for others, it may present itself as a pressure.

First year students are impressionable and easily lead. These statements are not meant to be derogatory or condescending, but it is the truth. It seems as though this vulnerability is being exploited cynically. The early influences a university has on a student can be lasting and can endure. If these first influences are all centred on sex, the whole university experience, or at least the social side of it, will thus be centred on sex.

To sum up, this article would like to ask the question – are the free condoms so widely available during Fresher’s week really an inspiring start to a students university life? Is a university not a place where creativity should be encouraged and uniqueness embraced? A condom does not encourage either of these things. Instead, it says conform, be the same as everyone else. Do the same things and prescribe to the same values. For a first year student these messages can be very memorable. Instead of instilling the idea of sex into their minds, perhaps more ambitious ideas like creativity, challenging the norms, and broadening their horizons should be propagated. Instead of reminders of sex, shouldn’t students be told that a university can be a wonderful environment where change can be achieved, new viewpoints ignited, where the status quo can be challenged, where each student has the unbridled opportunity to discover who they are as people and who they want to be. It is a place where dreams and lofty ambitions are cultivated. The slogan of UCD is ‘ad astra’ and this means ‘to the stars’. One would like to think, as Ireland’s leading university, perhaps we could think more innovatively and try and emanate this slogan in a more imaginative way than handing out free condoms.