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Condom Conundrum:  Should Condoms be Available in Schools?

Michelle Reising

Date: 11/16/2005

 

 

Introduction

The issue of sex education has long been a controversial one.  The two basic types of sex education in the United States are abstinence-only and comprehensive.  While comprehensive education advocates abstinence as the primary defense against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and HIV/AIDS, it also addresses the inevitability that some adolescents have or will engage in sexual behavior.  Twenty-one of the fifty states have school districts which provide condom availability programs (Brown, Pennylegion, & Hillard, 1997).  Providing information about contraception and how to have “safer” sex is an integral part of comprehensive sex education.  Providing condoms in schools is a much debated aspect of some comprehensive programs.  In contrast, abstinence-only programs discuss abstinence, or refraining from sex until marriage, as the only guarantee of protection from the growing epidemics of teenage pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS. Although published surveys report 68% to 75% of adults have supported distributing condoms in schools (Fanburg, Kaplan, & Naylor, 1995), more than half of students in the United States are being taught abstinence-only curricula, according to a website dedicated to adult sex education, (http://www.eroticuniversity.com/articles/sexed1.htm).  Both types of education seek to diminish the growing rate of these problems among adolescents.  Advocates of either program have strong opinions on having condoms available to students in school.

            This issue of condoms in schools is a growing concern because of increasing rates of sexual behavior, earlier onset of sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and the spreading of STDs and HIV.  The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development reported 17% of girls and 29% of boys engaging in sexual intercourse by age 16 (Singer 1994). 

Fifty-three percent of high school students in the US reported having had sexual intercourse, thirty-eight percent in the past three months.  Forty-seven percent failed to use a condom.  It should be of little surprise with these statistics that 25% of new HIV infections occur in people between 13 and 20 years old (Brown, Pennylegion, & Hillard 1997).

Court Decisions                                                            

Just how concerned are parents and school administrators?  There has been much debate on this topic and one website, (http://www.law.uh.edu/healthlawperspectives/HealthPolicy/981021Condoms.html) outlines the ongoing debate.  This debate includes many parents taking on the school system to get rid of condom availability in their children’s schools, citing such reasons as their fundamental right to remain free from governmental interference with their child rearing, their rights to familial privacy, parental liberty, and religious freedom.  Other statutes made compromises, such as allowing availability of condoms, but also allowing parents to request their child not be able to receive condoms.  While some of these statutes against availability were passed, others were denied.  The responsibility currently resides primarily with the individual school districts.

 

Basic Pros and Cons                                        

 

 An online debate topic database, outlines the argument for and against condom availability in schools (http://www.debatabase.org/details_print.asp?topicID=235).  Some positive aspects of providing condoms included that providing condoms could reduce incidence of unwanted, teenage pregnancy and the spread of STDs.  Secondly, a comprehensive sex education program including condom provision accepts the inevitability of adolescent sex and encourages students to make wise, “safe” decisions if they do have sex.  It is a wise investment by the government to supply condoms for schools in that it is very expensive to address problems created by irresponsible sexual behaviors.  This website also mentioned that providing condoms empowers women in that historically, women have suffered from restrictive reproduction regulations.  Condom availability would also make condom use the norm and decrease the negotiation necessary to get a partner to use a condom.  Finally, another positive aspect of condoms in schools is that they are the most effective (and cost-effective) way to prevent pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS. 

This website also presented the downside of providing condoms.  The argument against condom distribution includes the assumption that it encourages an earlier onset of sexual activity, that it is a potential offence to religious people/groups, and that it is wrong for taxpayers to be forced to financially support a program they consider morally objectionable.  Just as a pro side of condom availability is that condom use will become the norm, a con side of the argument is that sexual activity in general will become the norm.  Adolescent sexual activity will be expected, and peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior would increase.  Finally, the website considers the relative ineffectiveness of condoms, especially when used improperly, as is commonly done by those inexperienced, or young.

 

Other Arguments Against Condom Availability in Schools

Much of the argument against condom availability in schools you can find on the web is of moral or religious nature.  One website, explained many ways in which religious groups, along with the medical community are involved in issues of sex education (http://www.iwgonline.org/reproduction/).  It states that abstinence can be included in the curricula, be the focus of the curricula along with a comprehensive overview, or could also include information about contraceptive methods.  Abstinence only programs, according to the website, assume that all students want a mixed-gender marriage and presents any sex outside/before marriage as “bad”.  These programs do not include condoms because they believe they encourage sexual activity.  Another website (http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=2027&print=yes) includes quotes from various leaders against the distribution of condoms in schools.  Pat Robertson, a founder of a Christian Coalition discusses his view:

The school authorities are putting the entire weight of the government in favor of more premarital sex…That is the absolute game plan of the ultra-liberal radical left.  They have a game plan to desensitize children to this entire thing…They say, do everything you can do, everything you can possibly get away with, boys with boys, boys with girls, girls with girls, girls with boys, whatever, as much as you can, and if you have a baby, kill it.  I mean, that’s the whole concept of the radical left.  It is the most bizarre thing.  But the goal is to undermine society.

Yet another statement of this opinion and fervor is presented by Dr. Robert L. Simonds, founder of Citizens for Excellence in Education:

Sexologists and psycho-heresy mind manipulators (so-called experts) are not experts at all…They promote immorality instead of what could otherwise be good sex-education programs…Not only would they like to destroy families, but the entire human race, with such ideas—irrational, sick ideas that our schools often go along with…Remember, it strongly appears we are dealing with hard-line atheists, incapable of reason or morality.

These quotes represent the emotional nature of many anti-condom distribution and availability groups. 

            These feelings are not only expressed in American culture, however.  In countries where the HIV/AIDS epidemic is most rapidly spreading, many officials are taking a stand again condom availiability.  For example, President Mwanawasa, of Zambia, banned the distribution of condoms in schools, stating that it would encourage immorality and actually increase the speed with which HIV/AIDS spread among teenagers, who are responsible for the economic future of the country (http://www.dispatch.co.zm/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=292).  In Uganda, education official agree that abstinence should be the central message.  One official, Aggrey Kibenge, adamantly opposes the availability of condoms, saying “Children under the age of 18 are not trusted to take independent decisions so why should we give these children condoms?” (http://www.health-e.org.za/news/article.php?uid=20031101).  While many people vehemently oppose the availability of condoms in schools, many others are supportive of these programs.

           

Other Pro Arguments for Condom Availability in Schools

Other websites offered support for condom availability programs in schools.  One journal made the point that many teenagers are sexually active, but are too embarrassed or have no means to obtain condoms if they are not made available in school.  This article claimed that “sexual responsibility today means using a condom to prevent pregnancy and disease.  If teenagers are embarrassed in their efforts to acquire condoms, pregnancy and diseases will be the result, not abstinence” (Singer 1994).

Another website, (<http://www.datalounge.com/datalounge/news/record.html?record=2388>) examined a study in New York that compared the sexual activity and condom use of New York students (in a high school where condoms were available) and Chicago students (in a high school where they were not available).  The results of the study included that of those students who were sexually active, the New York students were more likely to have used a condom in their last sex act.  The rates of sexual activity did not differ from each other or change throughout the study.  This offers direct evidence contradicting claims that condom availability encourages and increases sexual activity in adolescents.

            Another website supports the availability of condoms, stating that abstinence only programs send an overriding and unhealthy message that sex is bad and dangerous (http://www.eroticuniversity.com/articles/sexed1.htm).  Finally, the American Medical Association concluded in their review of “Sexuality Education, Abstinence, and Distribution of Condoms in Schools” that condom availability programs do not hasten initial sexual intercourse or activity.  Further, the association states that such programs are seen in favorable light by students and showed increased condom use among students (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/article/print/2036-2376.html). 

 

                              Empirical Evidence                           

 

One should not base an opinion on these websites alone, however.  In order to examine the possible benefits and risks of condom availability in schools, it is of paramount importance to consider the empirical evidence.  Research results on the effects of condom availability on adolescent sexual behaviors is mixed and inconclusive for the most part.  While some studies found that condom availability was harmless and even effective in the prevention of pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS while others found no results or effects.

            Some studies examined the attitudes of students and parents regarding condom availability programs.  For example, in New York public high schools, 69% of parents believed students should be able to obtain condoms in schools, but almost half felt they should have the right to keep their children from doing so.  Most of these parents also believed that making condoms available would result in safer sex practices among students who were sexually active (Guttmacher et. al, 1995).  In another study, 85% of 931 students responded to a survey that they believed condoms should be distributed in their school.  Seventy-six of these students reported the belief that making condoms more accessible would not change the rate of sexual activity among adolescents (Fanburg, Kaplan, & Naylor, 1995).

            Opinions are still not conclusive evidence as to behavior, however.  Other studies have reported negative or negligible effects of condoms in schools.  For example, a US Representative, Tom Coburn reports that “the distribution of school condoms conflicts with “common sense” and increases condom use but does not necessarily lead to lower rates of either pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases” (Kirby 149).  Alternatively, Coburn continued to explain that an abstinence only program had shown lower rates of teenage pregnancies outside of marriage (Kirby 2000).  Another study showed that making condoms available in schools in Seattle had allowed students access to many condoms but this change did not lead to increases in sexual activity or condom use (Kirby et. al, 1999).

            Still other studies showed promising results for the possible effectiveness of condom distribution in schools.  In one study, for example, adolescents in schools with condoms available were more likely to have had instruction in their use.  These students were also less likely to report lifetime or recent sexual intercourse, which contradicts the belief that condom availability increases sexual activity.  These students were also twice as likely to use condoms as students in schools without the condom availability program (Blake et. al, 2003).  Yet another study showed that the benefit of a condom availability program was more than three times as great as the risk of a non-sexually active student feeling pressure or being encouraged to have sexual intercourse.  This study also found that the prevalence of sexual activity among the students in this program was not significantly higher than the state’s average (Wolk and Rosenbaum, 1995).  Furthermore, another study demonstrated that upon implementation of a condom distribution program, there was no change in the percentage of males or females who had engaged in sexual intercourse.  The number of males using condoms every time they engaged in sexual intercourse, however, increased significantly (37% to 50%).  The percentage of males using a condom in initial sexual intercourse also increased, from 65% to 80%.  While these numbers are encouraging, there was no significant change for females use of condoms.  Finally, these students attitudes towards sexual behavior stayed the same or became less favorable, while attitudes toward risk prevention stayed the same or became more favorable (Schuster et. al, 1998).

            More research is necessary to have strong conclusions about the effectiveness of condom availability as a part of comprehensive sex education programs.  Some studies have researched how to improve the effectiveness of these programs.  For example, one study presents three ways in which schools can make obtaining condoms easier in these availability programs, including making obtaining condoms more private, eliminating or reducing the cost of condoms, and increasing physical accessibility to condoms (Brown, Pennylegion, & Hillard, 1997). 

 

Conclusions

                                             

            The evidence surrounding the benefits and risks of making condoms available in schools is promising in some respects, questionable in others, but inconclusive in the end. With the current and growing problem of teenage pregnancy as well as the spreading epidemics of STDs and HIV/AIDS, this possible intervention becomes increasingly important.  While common opinion by religious groups, motivated by the search and spread of religious ideals inhibits the enactment of this program in many school districts, more conclusive evidence and support might outweigh their personal moral objections.    More research could yield results with hope for the increased prevention of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS among adolescents.

 

References

Blake, Susan M; Ledsky, Rebecca; Goodenow, Carol; Sawyer, Richard; Lohrmann, David; Windsor, Richard (2003).  Condom Availability Programs in

            Massachusetts High Schools:  Relationships With Condom Use and Sexual Behavior.  American Journal of Public Health:  93(6), 955-962.

Brener, Kirby D; Brown, NL; Peterfreund, N; Hillard, P; Harrist, R (1999).  The impact of condom availability in Seattle schools on sexual behavior and condom         use.  American Journal of Public Health:  89(2), 182-187.

Brown, Nancy L; Pennylegion, Michelle T; Hillard, Pamela (1997).  A Process Evaluation of Condom Availability in the Seattle, Washington Public Schools.  The

            Journal of School Health:   67(8), 336-340.

Fanburg, Jonathan Thomas; Kaplan, David W; Naylor, Kelly E (1995).  Student opinions of condom distribution at a Denver, Colorado, high school.  Journal of

            School Health:  65(5), 181-185.

Guttmacher, Sally; Lieberman, Lisa; Ward, David; Radosh, Alice; Rafferty, Yvonne; Freudenberg, Nicholas (1995).  Parents’ attitudes and beliefs about HIV

            AIDS prevention with condom availability in New York City public high schools.  Journal of School Health:  65(3), 101-106.

Kirby, Douglas (2000).  Making condoms available in schools.  Western Journal of Medicine:  172(3), 149-151.

Schuster, Mark A; Bell, Robert M; Berry, Sandra H; Kanouse, David E (1998).  Impact of a high school condom availability program on sexual attitudes and

            Behaviors.  Family Planning Perspectives:  30(2), 67-73.

Singer, A (1994).  Why schools should make condoms available to teenagers.  Educational Leadership:  52(2), 78-79.

Wolk, Larry I; Rosenbaum, Ronnie (1995).  The Benefits of School-Based Condom Availability:   Cross-Sectional Analysis of a Comprehensive High School-

            Based Program.  Journal of Adolescent Health:  17, 184-188.

 

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