Free Condoms For Boston High School Students

Readily available condoms are not necessarily the norm for students in US schools, thanks to moral panic about contraceptives and The Teenagers Having Sex.
Publish date:
June 21, 2013
teenagers, condoms, sexual health, sexytimes, sexual education

I went to high school in the kind of place where there was a big basket of condoms, dental dams, and lube right next to the candy on the secretary’s desk, free for the taking. Notably, no one ever grabbed the banana-flavored ones.

But I was pretty lucky. Readily available condoms are not necessarily the norm for students in US schools, thanks to moral panic about contraceptives and The Teenagers Having Sex; even though studies indicate that, shockingly, having access to contraceptives doesn’t make teens more likely to have sex. It does increase the chances that they will have safer sex, with a reduced risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

Which is why a lot of public health agencies and reproductive rights groups lobby for making condoms freely available to teens (as well as other people). After much discussion, that’s become a reality in Boston, where the Boston School Committee just approved a plan to expand the availability of condoms in schools. Predictably, it’s raising hackles.

Before the committee’s decision, the only schools that could hand out condoms were those with health centers. Now, students will also be able to get them from trained staff members as well as the Boston Public Health Commission, and they can get a quick primer on safer sex at the same time.

While I think we can all remember the awkwardness of having adults lecture us about the sexytimes, you’d actually be surprised by how many people don’t know how to use condoms appropriately, so it’s important to have access to that information.

A mandatory sexual education component will also be added to school health curricula. They're really covering their bases here.

The decision was the result of lobbying by both students and members of the community, illustrating once again that teens are far from unmotivated slackers who can’t be trusted to be politically involved. And hopefully it will stick, even though some people are not happy about it.

Those people being, of course, groups like the Archdiocese of Boston (seriously, like you people have any room to talk) and other conservative organizations that seem to think preventing access to reproductive health services will turn teens into fervent abstinence-only fans. While no groups have formally announced plans to attempt to get the decision repealed, that doesn’t mean they won’t.

And the plan already includes an out to appease conservatives: Parents can choose to exempt their children. I’m not quite sure how this is going to work, short of distributing a list of kids who aren’t allowed to get condoms to anyone who might potentially hand them out, which would be really awkward. It’s also just backward and ridiculous, because of course if Suzy Q. can’t get condoms because her parents are conservative jerks, she can always ask her pal Jose R. to pick some up for her.

But more than that, it’s illustrative of deeper social attitudes in the US about teens and sex. Apparently people really do think that depriving teens of access to safer sex supplies is a good idea, because it will magically make teens think twice about having sex. No, it’ll just make it harder for them to have safer sex, which will put them at greater risk of getting pregnant or contracting an infection.

And if your conservative jerkwad parents are so anti-sex, you’re going to have a hard time accessing treatment, thanks to a culture where teens don’t have a lot of medical autonomy. Which creates a tangled, ugly web where teens may have untreated STIs that they pass on, all because they couldn’t get condoms in the first place and they’re afraid of seeking treatment. And it creates a situation where teens with unwanted pregnancies don’t get appropriate counseling, prenatal care, and abortion options, because, once again, they’re afraid.

We shouldn’t be creating a culture of fear when it comes to sexytimes. We should be creating a culture of open discussion and the free exchange of information. And while I know it’s scary for a lot of parents to be thinking about their teens having sex, I think it would be even scarier to think about a teen having unsafe sex, about a teen not accessing adequate medical care, about a teen being raped and being afraid to reach out for help.

Because these are the things that tend to happen when sex is a taboo subject.

Which is why the move in Boston is so important. It doesn’t just put condoms out in the open for people who need them. It also puts sex out in the open for people who need or want to talk about it, creating a culture where students are encouraged to seek help from adults with information that can help them. Being a teenager growing into sexuality can be scary, and the more resources teens have access to, the better.

The opt-out policy troubles me, because teens are the ones who should be making this decision for themselves. They occupy a strange legal gray area, where their parents are legally responsible for them and have the legal authority to make decisions about their health care, where they live, and everything else, but they’re also growing into autonomous adulthood, and they’re developing their own minds and hearts and beliefs.

It’s hard to balance the very real needs of parents to protect their teens, meeting ethical, social, and family responsibilities, with the needs of teens to be allowed autonomy over their own bodies and lives. When it comes to medical ethics, the system is clearly rife with problems, especially when it comes to sexual health, as illustrated by things like parental notification laws.

If a teen doesn’t want condoms, it’s easy enough not to get them -- just don’t go ask for them. But if a teen wants and needs condoms and safer sex advice and is told that a staffer can’t help because parents opted out, that’s not good. It puts that teen, and the larger community, in danger.

The Boston initiative is a great start. I can only hope that policy, and attitudes, will catch up to the growing body of science illustrating that access to safer sex supplies is incontrovertibly a good thing for teens.