The students of 22 high schools in Philadelphia returned from winter break to find the city’s custom-designed “Freedom Condom” completely free of charge.
The schools, which make up more than a third of Philly’s public high schools, are part of what the city describes as a “condom distribution pilot program.” The complimentary condoms are aimed to curb the startlingly high rates of sexually transmitted infections among Philadelphia’s youth.
While this columnist is undoubtedly a fan of condoms on the house, the initiative seems to be merely throwing condoms at the problem. The installation of condom dispensers might be a step toward safer sex in Philadelphia, but it fails to acknowledge the greater issues surrounding sexual know-how.
This isn’t the first instance of such a program in Philly. In 2011, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched the Take Control Philly initiative, which pinpoints free condom pick-up sites around the city and offers to mail free condoms to Philadelphia’s youth. In 2012, a follow-up program called She Takes Control was introduced, which specifically targets teenage girls.
Both programs were met with mixed reviews. While sex educators applauded the improved access to condoms, critics repeatedly harped on the fact that Philadelphians between the ages of 11 and 19 were eligible for free condoms — the thought of 11-year-olds doing the deed struck an especially sensitive chord.
Indeed, in Philadelphia, more teenagers lose their virginity before the age of 13 than in any other major city and it’s also home to the highest number of teens who have had four or more sexual partners.
But these inflamed reactions miss the point. The problem isn’t when kids are having sex, but how they’re having sex. Of sexually active Philly teenagers, 37 percent have never used a condom. Among kids between the ages of 10 and 14, the rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia are four and five times the national average, respectively.
Clearly, Philadelphia has a problem.
Since 2011, Philadelphia has doled out over four million free condoms. That figure sounds impressive, but this is merely a symptomatic treatment, not a cure.
Sex education in elementary and middle schools in Philadelphia is virtually nonexistent. At the high-school level, Pennsylvania schools are required only to mention the spread of HIV, and many “comprehensive” sex education classrooms in Philadelphia focus almost entirely on biological topics.
Given this approach, it’s unrealistic to expect that condom recipients know what they’re doing (or even care to use condoms).
And while the Take Control Philly website provides a decent amount of information about having safer sex, it’s hard to imagine teenage couples perusing the site’s 86-page comprehensive manual, called the Zelda Guide to Health Services for Philadelphia Youth. (That’s much more than even I would care to look through, especially for something that isn’t required reading.)
To make matters worse, the 22 newly condom-rich high schools are prohibited from distributing condoms to students whose parents have “opted out” of the program.
While parental consent is not required for the mail-order condoms from takecontrolphilly.org, most kids between the ages of 11 and 19 live with their parents, making these condoms inaccessible to those who may need them most.
Even if there were no accessibility complications, the condom dispensaries are a Band-Aid solution to a bleeding-wound problem. When Philadelphia implemented a similar type of “pilot program” for condom dispersal in 1991, an academic study observed that only 39 percent of the sexually active population of the school utilized the service at all.
Funds that currently support the distribution of condoms could be better spent on improving STI screening from school nurses or bolstering sex education programs within Philadelphia classrooms.
To truly “take control” requires knowledge, and Philadelphia would do a better service to its students by strengthening sex education standards instead of merely unleashing a mass of free condoms.
Arielle Pardes is a College junior from San Diego, Calif. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Wednesday.