Sexual Health Roundup: Making Condoms Available (And Hoping They Keep Being Used)

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Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: Making Condoms Available (And Hoping They Keep Being Used)

Martha Kempner

As National Condom Month draws to a close, this week's roundup focuses on condom availability and use: in New York, in high schools, and in colleges.

The New York City Condom Turns Six

The New York City-branded condom—with its distinctive subway-themed wrapper—turned six on Valentine’s Day.

The city’s health department has been handing out condoms since 1971, when condoms were still called rubbers, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were still referred to by many as venereal diseases, and the AIDS crisis had not yet begun. But it wasn’t until 2007 when the department started distributing the New York City-branded condom.

“Since the 2007 launch, the NYC condom has helped pave the way for other cities to brand their own condoms, cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Vancouver to name just a few,” Monica Sweeney, the city’s assistant commissioner of health, said recently.

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It’s been very popular within the five boroughs as well. Prior to the launch of the program in 2007, the department distributed 3 million male condoms per year in the city; in 2012, it distributed 35.5 million. The program also makes female condoms available, distributing 1.5 million of those last year as well.

The department distributes the condoms at over 3,500 sites, through city agencies and independent organizations. Individuals can learn where to access condoms by calling the city’s 311 information line or using a smartphone app developed in 2011 to find the closest location with free condoms.

In honor of the anniversary, the condom distribution program has a new slogan: “NYC Condoms—Get Some!”

Rochester Schools to Start Distributing Condoms

In an effort to curb teen pregnancy rates, the Rochester City School District in New York will begin making condoms available to its students this week. The program was actually approved by the board of education in early 2012, but it has taken until now for the district, in conjunction with the state health department, to work out the implementation guidelines and train relevant personnel.

According to the district’s guidelines, condoms will be available to students in grades 9 through 12 through the nurse’s office. The rules state that students must have already completed a health course that includes education (though it is not clear from the district’s website when this course is offered or what happens if a student—say a ninth grader in the first weeks of school—requests condoms prior to completing the course). In addition to the course, students who request condoms will receive “personal health guidance from the nurse that includes information about abstinence, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, and pregnancy prevention along with instruction on how to safely use a condom,” according to the guidelines.

Nurses have received special training over the past year to prepare for the program.

As with most condom-availability programs, there is an opt-out policy; parents can complete a form stating that they do not want their child to have access to condoms in school.

The school district seems to be very much behind the program. The information sheet on its website links to an Advocates for Youth fact sheet noting that over 400 high schools in 50 districts have condom-availability programs and that “numerous studies in public health journals report that programs to make condoms available in schools succeed at increasing the practice of safe sex, and do not increase sexual activity among students.”

The page also quotes the district’s senior director for youth development and family service as saying, “Sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy are public health concerns faced by every school district in our community. We have designed this program to protect Rochester students from the dangers of unsafe sex, while ensuring that they have the necessary guidance to make smart choices, and that their parents can opt out easily if they don’t approve.”

As of now it does not appear that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the program, but that may change if the local news media has its way. Local news station WROC ran a 39-second spot at 5:30 Wednesday morning that began, “A controversial program in the Rochester school system begins today.” And News 10 promised to ask district administrators the “tough questions,” like who is paying for the condoms and what happens if a kid whose parents opted out has a friend go to the nurse for him.

If they asked me about the program, I would say that it’s being supported by the state health department (which the district freely notes) and that the condoms-from-a-friend scenario is no different than if that friend walked into CVS and bought a pack of Trojans and handed them over; either way, the end result is that there’s a better chance the kid will use condoms when he or she does become sexually active.

Of course, they didn’t ask me, so we will wait and see what the district says and whether this really does stir up controversy where none should exist.

Condom Use Declines During First Year of College

Most college students are sexually active, and they tend to practice serial monogamy—one sexual relationship at a time, but a number over the course of their four (or more) years on campus. These students are prime candidates for using condoms to prevent STIs, even if they are also using other forms of birth control. Unfortunately, new research suggests that the use of condoms actually decreases during young women’s first year of college.

For the article, published in the current edition of the Journal of Sex Research, researchers used data from a year-long study of health behaviors among first-year college students at an unidentified school in the Northeast. Students were asked to report on their sexual behavior, partner status, and condom use, among other questions, at the beginning of each month of the academic year. The data analyses suggest that participants’ use of condoms with romantic partners started out relatively high but decreased over time. Though few of the participants had casual sex on a regular basis, the same pattern seemed to emerge with these sexual interactions as well. Researchers also found that decreases in condom use were higher among respondents with lower grade point averages, students from lower-income families, and those who reported binge drinking.

In my experience, condom education is stronger on college campuses than most anywhere else, and many schools make condoms readily available to students. This research suggests, however, that there is more education to be done, especially when it comes to reminding young adults that they should not stop using condoms just because they’ve been dating a particular person for a while.