Condoms in Philly Schools—What Took So Long?
When students at 22 Philadelphia high schools return to class after winter break, they’ll find something that will likely make former presidential candidate Rick Santorum shed a single tear, or at least write a World Net Daily column: Free condom dispensers inside the nurse’s office.
“The reality is: Many of our teenagers, regardless of what adults think, are engaged in sexual activities,” Mayor Nutter told the Philadelphia Inquirer of the move. “Discussion about whether or not they should be sexually active is an appropriate discussion, but if they are, then we need to make sure they’re engaged in safe sexual practices.”
Condoms inside schools—while a politically sketchy move in the immediate—is the next likely step in the city’s fight against teenage sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. For years, the Philadelphia government has been advocating free condoms through their website, on Facebook and in public sentiments. It’s sparked obvious outrage from the usual suspects, but if you’re to believe statistics coming from both the local and federal governments, it’s needed.
The idea goes back, but for the purposes of the blogosphere, we’ll head to December 2010, when the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Division of Disease Control launched a contest. The mission: Come up with a design that will make kids want to use condoms. And not in a creepy way. The idea was that kids were already having sex, and sex-ed classes alone couldn’t get them to act responsibly. So as part of the mayor’s plan to up Philly’s general healthiness—e.g., following up the indoor smoking ban with menu labeling and recreation initiatives—the Department of Public Health would also start handing out condoms to those who wanted them. And as with anything, demand is partially based on how you promote your product. The contest asked for submissions designing a promotion for that free condom.
In discussing the idea, the city often cited a 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which noted that 37 percent of sexually-active high school students in Philadelphia admitted to not using condoms. In 2010, there were 19,000 cases of the clap—half of which involved youths between the ages of 10 and 19. “Philadelphia has the highest number of youth who have been sexually active, the highest number who became sexually active before age thirteen, and the highest number of youth who have had four or more sexual partners,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Don Schwarz noted at the time.
In April of the following year, the city announced a contest winner: The Freedom Condom, by Michael Bodenberger, the package design for which is at the top of this blog.
Needless to say, there was wild outrage then, as now. Fox News published a blog by their resident conservative doctor—Dr. Manny—titled “The Problem With Giving Condoms to 11-Year-Olds,” in which the doctor promoted abstinence education instead. “Over the past several years, teen pregnancy rates across the country have been on the decline because of long-term efforts to educate children about sex,” he wrote. “It is irresponsible to give an 11-year-old child a condom and assume that this is sex education.” The program “has the potential” to raise STD rates among youth, he noted.
The 2011 Youth Risk Survey found similar results to the earlier one: According to the Center for Disease Control, 61 percent of high school students in Philadelphia had had sex—and 15 percent of those had sex before age 13. Among those who did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter, two years after the free condom campaign: 40 percent. Nonetheless, the city argues that STD rates are falling and cites the free condom program, which they’ve dubbed Take Control Philly, as the reason. Take Control Philly’s website allowed people to log on and have condoms shipped to them directly—or simply locate the nearest neighborhood center partnering with TCP to give out the birth control.
Philly has caught the brunt of public flak for government condom programs, but our underlying statistics are far from an anomaly. Last year, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Boston University School of Public Health surveyed teenage girls aged 14-20 in the Boston area; one in 13 reported to having engaged in group-sex experimentation—which, you guessed it, is statistically dangerous for teens. In nearly half of group sex encounters amongst teens, at least one male did not use a condom, according to the research—which also notes that about 30 percent of males ages 13-19 who report having multi-partner sex have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.
Health Commissioner Don Schwarz actually went on CNN yesterday to defend the idea.“Condoms are part of a larger intervention both to raise awareness about safer sex,” he said, “and to provide obviously a tool if young people are interested in being safer in their sexual behavior.”