The Time Has Come: Free Condoms in Every High School

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Commentary Contraception

The Time Has Come: Free Condoms in Every High School

Amanda Marcotte

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a new set of recommendations encouraging schools, parents, and communities to focus on destigmatizing condoms and making them more available to teenagers. What was once a radical idea is quickly becoming normalized.

Making free condoms available in schools: It’s an idea that has long been bandied about on the right as evidence of the supposed excesses of liberal ideology. Take, for example, the hysterical coverage of “rubbers” in New York schools from conservative rag the New York Daily News, which breathlessly reported that “[t]he back-to-school collection includes ‘Rough Rider Studded’ condoms as well as ‘King XL,’ ‘Extra Strength,’ ‘Ultra Sensitive,’ ‘Ultra Thin,’ ‘Ribbed’ and ‘Assorted Flavors.’” You start to get the impression that the reason conservatives think high school students get sexually aroused at the mere sight of a condom is because they do themselves.

Well, the idea that condoms should be made available free to teenagers isn’t really a radical leftist idea anymore, if it ever was. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—hardly a subversive communist organization—issued a policy statement supporting the notion that kids who want condoms should be able to get them discreetly and affordably, preferably at no cost. “Schools should be considered suitable sites for condom distribution,” the statement read, adding that pediatricians should emphasize to parents the importance of educating their children about condom use.

The AAP knows some parents are afraid this will be read as “permission” to have sex, but as the group noted, kids who have access to condoms and condom education do not have sex sooner; in fact, nearly half of studies show that kids who have condom access have sex later than their peers who don’t have it. That may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it actually makes sense if you think about it. Kids who live in a more sexually liberated environment are more likely to have sex on their own terms rather than because of peer pressure or a desire to prove they’re rebellious. In addition, kids who live in an environment that is supportive of their sexuality instead of hostile to it may be more inclined to use oral sex and mutual masturbation in order to delay intercourse, whereas kids who don’t have a good idea that those are options might rush into intercourse first.

Not that facts will do much to stem the tide of disapproval from the right about the growing trend of schools, particularly in dense cities, making condoms available to students. “Sending a message” of disapproval about sex is clearly more important to many on the right than actually protecting the health and well-being of teenagers, and it appears to be more important even than making sure the message is received in the same spirit it was intended.

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But for those who really do put a priority on the health of teenagers, the AAP’s announcement is a big boost to efforts to get more condoms available to teenagers who need them. According to the AAP, rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia have been rising over the past decade, even as teenage pregnancy rates are falling. One in five new HIV infections is in someone age 13 to 24. Kids are getting smarter about preventing pregnancy, but when it comes to sexually transmitted infections, there’s clearly a gap.

The reason why shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. It can be difficult when you’re young to deal with the often delicate situation of explaining why you want to use condoms without causing an oversensitive partner to assume you’re accusing them of being “dirty.” No one is going to get bent out of shape because you believe their body plus your body could equal a pregnancy (if you’re straight, anyway), but sadly, some people, especially if they’re still inexperienced, think the desire to use a condom means a lack of trust.

One way to make that stigma disappear is to create as many opportunities as possible to communicate to young people that condoms are a normal, everyday part of sex and nothing to feel weird or ashamed about. Hiding condoms, or making students ask a nurse for them like they’re some kind of specialized medical device, does the opposite, creating stigma. Having condoms in big bowls or in free vending machines everywhere helps establish that sliding one on is normal, and it’s not a personal judgment on you or your health status to insist on wearing one. As with most things, frequent exposure to condoms will make them feel familiar and normal, instead of weird things you have to go out of your way to possess.

For example, think about how everyone went from not wearing seat belts to wearing seat belts. For those of us who are old enough to remember, when mandatory seat belt laws first started to be passed, a big obstacle was that a lot of people were offended by the idea, seeing it as a referendum on their driving skills rather than as a sensible safety precaution. There was a period when reaching for the seat belt was a fraught choice, a delicate situation in which you often had to make excuses to a driver who took it as an affront.

Nowadays, the opposite happens: Drivers not only expect everyone to buckle up, but as a matter of personal pride, most will insist on it. What happened? Legislation was part of it, but only because the law made wearing one ubiquitous. Once the stigma was gone, the whole sense that you were trying to “say” something by wearing a seat belt evaporated. Today it would seem ludicrous for a driver to say anything negative about seat belt usage.

The same thing can happen with condoms—and to an extent it already has for many communities. It’s just a matter of making condoms normal and mainstream so that the sight of them doesn’t cause people to fret or have weird feelings. Luckily, we now have the AAP’s recommendations to back up future attempts to make condoms more visible and accessible in high schools and other places teenagers congregate.