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Condom Free for All

Dec. 9, 2009
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For many adults, the only thing more troubling than thinking about their children having sex should be not thinking about it.

Health officials and other brave leaders within Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have done a public service by proposing free condoms be made available to high-school students to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

You can bet that for their political courage MPS officials will be widely condemned by right-wing radio and some parents who foolishly believe that, when it comes to teenage sexuality, ignorance is the best policy.

The statistics tell a different story. Two confidential surveys of Milwaukee high-school and middle-school students in 2003 and 2009 show sexual activity among students is increasing and—far more shocking—the use of condoms is declining.

From 2003 to 2009, the reported number of high-school students having had sexual intercourse increased from just less than 60% to 63.1%. At the same time, the number of sexually active students who said they used condoms dropped from 70.5% to 66.2%.

Those figures say more about us than it does about our children: We are failing to educate our children about the serious life-altering and even life-threatening consequences of having unsafe sex.

As we become more concerned about teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, how could we possibly be doing a poorer job of educating our children about how to protect themselves?

The answer is simple: We do it on purpose. We hesitate to provide meaningful sex education in our schools for fear of offending extremists who want nothing but abstinence education.

When tumultuous hormones have young people’s interest in sex at a fever pitch, our primary advice to them is: Don’t even think about it! Fat chance of that.

Even worse, abstinence-education zealots are so strongly opposed to informing young people about birth control and protection from disease they lie and grossly exaggerate to discourage sexually active teenagers from having safe sex.

Abstinence education spends so much time talking about the failure of condoms, you would think those things were bursting with the staccato regularity of the fireworks grand finale on the Fourth of July.

In truth, condom failure is extremely rare. Use of condoms remains by far the most effective method of birth control and disease prevention. Scaring young people away from using condoms by lying to them about their effectiveness is irresponsible. In the age of AIDS, it can even be fatal.

Education Beats Ignorance

The truth is abstinence fails far more often than condoms do. Sex has a way of breaking out spontaneously between two people in spite of advance pledges and without any consultation at all with parents or school authorities.

Actually, research shows non-education on sex can have far more serious consequences for young people than providing truthful information and condoms.

Comparing young people who received comprehensive sex education including information about protection from disease and unwanted pregnancies to those who received “abstinence only” or “abstinence first” education showed little difference in the likelihood of students having sex.

There was a dramatic difference, however, in practicing safe sex. Those whose education emphasized abstinence were far less likely to use any kind of protection when they began having sex.

The strictest, most controlling societies on Earth have never succeeded in preventing young people from discovering sex or, at some point, from enthusiastically participating.

The approach proposed by MPS health officials is the responsible one. When surveys show that nearly two-thirds of high-school students and a quarter of middle-school students have had sex, promoting ignorance is no longer an option.

The MPS proposal does not freely distribute contraceptives, no questions asked, although that wouldn’t be a bad idea if it reversed the declining use of condoms by sexually active students. A student would have to go to a school nurse to ask for a condom. That would give a health professional an opportunity to have an extended conversation with each student about safe sexual practices and other concerns in their lives.

In a perfect world, all children would feel comfortable going to their own parents for such advice and for access to protection from disease and unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, many of us fail our children in exactly those times when they need us most emotionally. Even kids with the best family relationships are afraid we will be disappointed in them.

Others are just plain afraid, with good reason. For too many, admitting sexual activity to a parent can bring condemnation, banishment from their home or even physical violence.

In today’s world, schools often provide a safe haven for children from the dangers of the streets or in their own homes.

There is nothing outrageous about schools educating and providing protection for students as they prepare for one of the most important experiences in their lives.


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