Ronnie Polaneczky: If you think 11-year-olds in this city don't need condoms, think again

condom400
Should 11-year-olds have access to this? The city unveiled the winning condom-wrapper design last week. Children will be able to get the condoms free.

THE EMAIL was from a wigged-out mom I know well.

She was appalled that the city's campaign to reduce sexually transmitted diseases allows kids as young as 11 to get free condoms via mail-order from the Public Health Department. Eleven!

Go to the website www.takecontrolphilly.org and see for yourself. Be warned: The site contains very straightforward info, including explicit animations illustrating the proper way to don or insert a condom.

"Every girl is different," the website notes in its instructions on female-condom use. "Figure out what position works for you. You can stand with one foot on a chair, sit on the edge of a chair, lie down, squat, or for fun, have your partner help you out."

Poll

When do you feel it's appropriate for young people to get free condoms?

The idea of an 11-year-old reading this makes me want to cry.

"As a parent, I am personally outraged," wrote my friend, who has a 14-year-old. "What's the back story on this campaign? What is it telling our youth? I get the sex-education thing for kids in schools, but mail-order condoms for 11-year-olds??? It's shocking to me."

We don't know the half of what's going on out there.

Depress us, Gary Bell.

"We do more workshops in middle schools than in high schools," says Bell, executive director of Bebashi-Transition to Hope, the local nonprofit that works on prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. "Teachers call us because their kids are acting out sexually. They'll catch them in the bathroom or the stairwell. They hear that kids are cutting schools to have orgies."

Good Lord. Orgies?

"Yes, indeed," says Bell. "It's sad. It's horrifying."

But no longer startling to those on the front lines of adolescent sexuality.

"We follow 200 teenagers with HIV, and the youngest is 12," says Jill Foster, director of the Dorothy Mann Center for Pediatric and Adolescent HIV at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. "When we started doing HIV treatment in 1998, the average age of patients was 16 or 17. The first time we got a 13-year-old was mind-blowing."

Now, Foster and her colleagues barely twitch when a child barely in his or her teens tests positive for HIV.

Because a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified Philadelphia as having the earliest age of sexual initiation - 13 - among cities participating in the study, she says, it's crucial to make condoms available to younger kids.

People gasp at that, says Foster, who diagnoses new HIV cases at a rate of two to three teens a month, up from one every four months just a decade ago.

"But people have no idea how tough it is to be a kid who's exposed to sexual media images and peer pressure. It's routine for 12- and 13-year-olds to talk about sex. Younger kids hear them and they want to be part of that 'older' world," she says.

"They don't have maturity or impulse control, so if we can get them to have condoms with them when they start having sex, they are going to be safer.

"I wish it weren't necessary," she says. "Unfortunately, it is."


 

It would be easy to play the "appalled citizen" card and decry the inclusion of kids as young as 11 in Philadelphia's STD-prevention campaign. But I won't. Because there are two groups of children in this city:

Those lucky enough to have at least one caring, available adult to guide them through sex-charged adolescence.

And those left on their own.

Like the child being raised by a single mom whose two jobs keep her from supervising her child. Or the kids being raised by a tired grandmom who's asleep by 9 and doesn't know that the kids have snuck out of the house.

Or the homeless teen who crashes on couches and must choose between saying no to a friend's creepy uncle or wandering the streets at night.

These kids deserve protection from the fallout of STDs and unplanned pregnancy as much as kids from "good" families do - kids who, by the way, get in trouble, too. They just have more support to get them through it.

"We know that sexual activity in young adolescents doesn't change overnight," says Donald Schwarz, a physician who worked with adolescents for years at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia before being appointed city health commissioner in 2008. "But children need to be protected while we get our heads around whatever the long-term strategies should be here."

He mentions a recent, awful survey of sixth-graders in West Philly, which showed that 25 percent of the children, who were just 11 years old, had had sex.

"Clearly, we don't think it's OK for 11-year-olds to be having sex," says Schwarz. "But we don't have the infrastructure in place to fix [that] problem fast. We can, however, make condoms available fairly quickly to whoever needs them.

"I don't have all the answers on this," says Schwarz. "But I do think in economic terms. I think that jobs and education are the key to turning this ship. But it will take time and hard work in a period when the city is struggling financially."

There are no easy solutions. This is a complicated problem, exacerbated by generational poverty and family collapse that paralyzes our cities in ways too myriad to address in one column.

Like I said, thinking about it makes me want to cry.

But that's not a good enough reason to keep condoms out of the backpacks of 11-year-olds who will be sexually active whether we like it or not.