By Michael Yudell
When I was an awkward teen in the 1980s, I, like most other young males since the invention of vulcanized rubber, secretly carried a condom in my wallet … Just in case.
It was ridiculous. The condom imprinted a ring in the leather, ruining the wallet and making my clandestine attempt at preparation a joke. Never mind that it never got used, given how shy and immature I was in high school.
I asked my wife: Had she had ever carried condoms? In her backpack? Purse? Hidden in her big '80s hairdo? She laughed. Condoms were the guy’s responsibility, she said. And, besides, she never would have thought to carry one.
And so today, sadly, data suggests that the shortcomings of yesteryears' teen mating rituals still stand: young women are still far less likely to be prepared for safe sex than are their young male counterparts, leaving them vulnerable to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
To address this persistent problem, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health this week launched its She Takes Control! campaign, which, according to the city press release, hopes to “increase the number of young women who carry condoms, address the stigma associated with females carrying condoms, and normalize consistent condom carrying among women.” In the coming months you are likely to see advertisements for the program around the city on SEPTA buses and trains. You can read more about the program on its Facebook page or at the TakeControlPhilly website.
She Takes Control! is an outgrowth of the health department's Freedom Condom initiative, a condom distribution and education program that has made condoms available to teens at over 160 distribution sites around the city. It was begun in 2011 in response to the sky-high rates of sexually transmitted diseases reported among city residents age 11 to 19. Teens who are unable to get to one of the sites or are too shy to pick up a condom can even get them by mail, which certainly avoids the awkward kid-pacing-the-condom-aisle-in-the-pharmacy phenomenon. She Takes Control! does not currently distribute female condoms due to cost limitations, but they are offered for free at city Health Center No. 5 and the city's STD clinic (aka Health Center No. 1).
And why do Philadelphia’s teens need condoms? Because they are having sex — and unsafe sex at that. Rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the city are three times the national average for ages 15 to 19. For ages 10 to 14, chlamydia is five times the national average; for gonorrhea, four times.
To be fair, these comparisons of Philadelphia and the nation aren't apples to apples because the health department runs what may be the most extensive school-based STD testing program in the United States, and the more you test for something — anything — the more you are likely to find. On the other hand, the city started testing every student many years ago precisely out of concerns over high rates of infection.
Plenty of readers, of course, will have very strong opinions about teenagers having sex. They don’t care. They are doing it, and will likely keep doing it even with years of abstinence-only messages thrown at them. Study after study has shown such programs to be ineffective. In fact, not only do they fail to prevent teen pregnancy or the spread of STDs, but, write the authors of one paper in the journal PloS One, they may “actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.” Such programs are also immoral, write the authors of another paper, because they withhold and distort information about sex and the risks of STDs, including HIV, that could save lives.
I applaud Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz and his department for these efforts. Hopefully, as data rolls in from the Freedom Condom initiative and the new She Takes Control! program, we’ll see a drop in rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy in Philadelphia. That would be something for the city to celebrate.
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