A true child of the '80s and liberal education, I had condom use hammered into me from a very young age in every sex education class I ever had -- including in middle school, when the girls and the boys were separated and the girls learned how to put condoms on bananas with their mouths. I always wondered what the boys did. And what role bananas played in the bedroom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain a comprehensive Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System to keep up with what kids these days are up to, with a particular interest in teen sexuality. The latest survey results show a troubling trend: Condom use is dropping among sexually active teens. In 2003, 63% of sexually active teens were busting out the love glove for sexytimes. Last year, only 59% did.
Are 41% of teens fluid-bonded, or is there something more to this story? What's making condoms unpopular among teens, and what can we do to increase condom use? After all, thanks to the Supreme Court, teen girls working at Hobby Lobby for the summer now can't get birth control covered by insurance, so it's more important than ever to use one of the easiest birth control methods to access -- and to prevent STIs at the same time.
The AIDS Generation Argument
Some might argue that teens have become sloppy about condoms because the immediate threat of HIV/AIDS isn't as terrifying as it once was. It's certainly true that for a slightly older generation who knew people who died of AIDS, and were constantly surrounded by fearmongering propaganda (remember when people thought AIDS could be passed through casual contact, and when even medical professionals were afraid to treat HIV/AIDS patients?), condoms seem like an obvious sexual health measure.
Even for those of us who were young and not sexually active during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, we were still surrounded by messaging about the virus, and about condom use. Condoms were heavily integrated into sexual education programs at many US high schools, and we were constantly reminded that HIV was a serious, incurable, progressive disease that would eventually kill us.
Are teens being careless about condoms because they see HIV as something survivable and manageable, thanks to the development of amazing medications that help patients control the virus? Because they don't see the rise in drug-resistant STIs, particularly gonorrhea, which are starting to become a serious public health problem?
This may be a factor in what's going on, but it's not the only one, and it may not be the most important one for teens making decisions about their sexual health.
The "Condoms are Terrible!" Argument
As ever, some public health advocates are concerned about the condom's maligned status among sexually active people of all ages. The arguments that condoms are uncomfortable, restrict sensation, and inhibit intimacy are all pretty time-worn, but that doesn't mean these chestnuts aren't still making their way around, especially among teens. When sex is less new and exciting, more familiar waters and less uncharted territory, perhaps these arguments fall upon uninterested ears, but people just exploring their sexuality might be more inclined to believe them -- or to at least know what sex feels like without a condom.
Condom technology has evolved considerably in recent years, with every manufacturer vying to produce thinner, less obtrusive products that are easier to put on. We're not talking uncomfortable lambskin sheaths at this point, but the bad PR surrounding the condom endures.
Hey, Maybe Teens Really Are Fluid-Bonded!
As unlikely as it may sound to adults accustomed to assuming that teens are irresponsible and incapable of making smart choices for themselves, it's entirely possible that at least some of those teens are making a carefully calculated decision. Maybe they're committing to open conversation with their partners and periodic STI testing to determine their infection status. Perhaps they're agreeing to only have unprotected sex with one monogamous partner, or with one among several partners for poly teens.
Certainly the use of other birth control methods is slowly increasing among teens, thanks to expanded options. The patch, the pill, and the ring are in use among a minority of teens, but they are in fact being used. The survey has close to 25% of students reporting the use of some form of birth control other than condoms, which is indicative of both long-term planning and stable relationships.
Does it seem unlikely that teens are approaching sexual health in more nuanced ways? Maybe you're underestimating teens, and their ability to make empowered decisions -- when they have the right information, which brings us to...
The Real Culprit: Sex Ed
Let's face it. Sexual education in this country is absolutely terrible. In fact, 80% of 15-17 year olds have no sexual education before having sex for the first time, a pretty far cry from my banana days. Thanks to the rise of abstinence-only curricula, many teens aren't getting information about safer sex, and, in fact, they're getting actively factually incorrect information. Teens are told that condoms can't protect them from STIs, that condoms are too difficult to use, that latex is frail and prone to breakage (see what Trojan does to test their condoms), and much, much more by moralizing, false campaigns intended not just to malign condoms but to malign teen sexuality and remind young women that they shouldn't be thinking about sex. (Young men are, curiously, exempt from much of the targeted anti-sex campaigning in middle and high schools.)
Students who are not accessing good sexual education can't learn about condom use, and the risk of STIs. They aren't getting information about how to prevent potentially serious infections, and how to take care of their sexual health. They're also not getting information about good birth control options, how to find a doctor who will provide comprehensive care, and how to address issues like questioning sexuality and gender. People without knowledge can't make empowered choices for themselves, and young women who learn that sex is shameful and disgusting certainly aren't going to receive or internalize the message that they can protect themselves from pregnancy and common infections with the use of a condom.
The sex-negative, slut-shaming approach to teen sexuality in this country is directly responsible for declining condom use. This isn't about teens being irresponsible or forgetting what it was like to live in an epidemic, or even about the culture of condom hate. It's specifically about how adults are taking useful tools away from teens, and setting them up for failure.
It's good to be asking why teens aren't using condoms. It would be better to ask why we aren't teaching teens to communicate openly and honestly about sexuality.