News Sexual Health

Boston High Schools May Soon Make Condoms Available and Provide More Sex Ed

Martha Kempner

The Boston School Committee is considering adopting a new policy that would add sexuality education and other health courses and make condoms available at all high schools in the city.

The Boston School Committee is considering adopting a new policy that would add sexuality education and other health courses and make condoms available at all high schools in the city. The move to change these policies comes as the city is seeing high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially chlamydia, among teens. In 2012, there were 1,249 cases reported among 15- to 19-year-olds in Boston.

Currently the city’s schools are operating under a policy that was controversial when it was passed in 1994. It allows for condom availability only at the 19 schools that house school-based health centers (there are a total of 32 high schools in the city). At the time, Mayor Thomas M. Menino pushed for the policy out of a concern over rising HIV-infection rates among teenagers in the city. The policy passed despite staunch opposition from the previous mayor and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

It has not been updated in nearly a decade, however, and many people in the city, including students, think it does not go far enough. According to the Boston Globe:

In the Fall of 2010 young people from the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain launched an aggressive campaign to persuade school officials to offer free condoms in all high schools, and to increase the rigor and availability of sexual health education courses, which they said had been dropped from several schools because of budget cuts or MCAS [standardized test] prep.

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In fact, only eight of the 32 high schools in the city currently offer sex education.

The school committee is now considering a number of these proposals. Under the suggested condom policy, students at all city schools would be able to receive condoms either from school staff, the Boston Public Health Commission, or a community health service partner. Any student receiving condoms would be given counseling on safer practices at the same time. Parents who do not want their children to receive condoms could opt out of the program.

This policy would be part of a larger health and wellness program, which would apply to all grade levels and include improved physical education classes, education about nutrition, bullying prevention programs, and sexuality education.

Members of the school committee seemed supportive of these changes, including condom availability, when they met at the beginning of the month. The committee’s chairman, Michael O’Neill, told the Globe, “Many members spoke positively about the comprehensiveness of the policy and acknowledged the reality our students face.” No one spoke out to oppose changing the policy.

The school committee is set to meet again on June 19.

News Sexual Health

Two Major Cities Make Condoms More Easily Available to Young People

Martha Kempner

Two big cities—Chicago and Philadelphia—are expanding and advertising programs that allow teens to get condoms at school and even at home.

As Rewire has reported in the past, condom availability programs have been credited with increasing the likelihood that sexually active teens use this important pregnancy- and disease-prevention method without increasing the likelihood that teens become sexually active. Though some adults are still wary of giving teens access to condoms or other forms of contraception, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released an opinion saying that easy access to condoms is essential for teens, that communities should work to make condoms available in places where teens frequent, and that schools are a good place for condom availability programs. Two big cities—Chicago and Philadelphia—are following this advice by expanding and advertising programs that allow teens to get condoms at school and even at home.

At the start of this school year in September, the Chicago school district worked closely with the city’s health department to make condoms available at two public high schools. The program was part of a citywide initiative aimed at reducing teen pregnancy and birth rates which, though dropping, are higher than the national average. In fact, Chicago’s teen birth rate of 57 births to 1,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 is just over one-and-a-half times the national average (34 per 1,000) and more than twice that of New York City (23.6 per 1,000). The initiative, which is funded by a five-year, $20 million federal grant, also includes controversial ads featuring “pregnant” teenage boys (see Elizabeth Schroeder’s commentary for Rewire) and age-appropriate sexuality education starting in kindergarten, which is set to be implemented in 2016. Previously, sex education did not start until fifth grade.

City officials recently announced that they will expand the condom availability program to at least 24 high schools in the district for the 2014–15 school year. Though they expect some parents will be upset by the program, officials say it is necessary. Alderman Latasha Thomas, chairman of the city council’s education committee, told the Sun Times, “Some parents are gonna have problems with it—absolutely. I understand it. My kids are grown now. But, I remember those teenaged years. But, the reality is they’re having sexual intercourse and the stats say [35 percent] of the people who are having sexual intercourse in high school aren’t using any protection. None. They still have a process where they teach them to abstain. But, at the end of the day, they have to deal with the reality.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed these sentiments at an unrelated news conference, saying, “It’s an acknowledgement of what’s happening, whether you did that or not. It’s … an attempt to deal, from a health-care perspective, [with] both pregnancy as well as socially-transmitted diseases. I respect it as a pilot. But, I want everybody to understand that doesn’t mean you’re absolved—either as a parent or an adult—to talk to an adolescent about responsible behavior, respecting who you’re with and doing what’s right, not what’s convenient.”

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A condom availability campaign in Philadelphia is reaching students even closer to home—their mailbox. Run by the city’s health department, Take Control Philly, launched in 2011 in an effort to bring down rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people in the city. Philadelphians between the ages of 13 and 19 are eligible to receive free condoms by mail. In addition to the mail-order service, the department also makes condoms available at 180 sites across the city and at events throughout the year. The department has distributed 7.5 million condoms since the campaign launched.

To increase its reach, the campaign uses social media sites like Facebook. For example, in February, it ran a series of ads featuring the “worst Valentine’s ever” such as one from a genital wart saying “I’m stuck on you.” Matt Prior, who runs the campaign for the health department, told News Works that these kind of ads are very popular and consistently lead to a spike in mail-order condom requests: “So in three steps from seeing an ad or seeing a post, they can hit three buttons, enter some information, and they’re getting condoms in their hands. We mailed over 150,000 condoms that way.” He also credited the Facebook ads with increasing from 30 percent to 38 percent the percentage of mail orders that come from young women.

The department believes that making condoms available to teens is working. It claims that internal numbers show a 10 to 20 percent decrease in the case of chlamydia and gonorrhea among young people since the campaign began in 2011.

Condoms are highly effective at preventing pregnancy and remain the only method of contraception that also protects against sexually transmitted infections. Given the success of condom availability programs in increasing the use of this method without increasing rates of sexual behavior, we can only hope that more cities and towns across the country follow the example set by Chicago and Philadelphia.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: States Improve Sex Ed, Vibrator Patent Ruling, and Genitals Clash in the Street

Martha Kempner

This week, two states took steps to improve sex ed, a vibrator company was slapped for patent infringement, and a street fight broke out between a penis, a vulva, and a bystander.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Colorado Sex Ed Law Signed by Governor

In January, Rewire reported on an effort by Colorado lawmakers to improve sexuality education in the state. That effort was successful, as the law was recently signed by the governor.

The new law mandates medically accurate comprehensive sexuality education, creates a grant programs that would support evidence-based sexuality education programs, gets rid of the stricter “opt-in” policy that was in place for some schools, and limits the use of direct or indirect funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This does not mean that schools can’t provide abstinence-only programs, as the attorney general recently ruled that third-party organizations could provide such education in schools as long as the schools didn’t receive the grant money.

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Still, when taken together, these provisions represent a major step forward for sex education in the state. In fact, until now Colorado did not require sex education but did mandate that any school that chose to teach it stressed abstinence as “the only certain way and the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

The bill was signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper at the end of last month and takes effect July 1.

Boston High Schools Get Condoms

Last week we reported that the Boston School Committee was set to vote on important improvements to sexuality education, including a provision to mandate comprehensive sexuality education as well as one to make condoms available in all of the city’s 32 high schools. As expected, both measures passed with five of the six members of the committee voting in favor of it and one abstaining.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said in a statement, “The vote for comprehensive sex education and condom availability will give students the tools to make healthy decisions at a critical time in their lives. The good decisions youth make now are the good decisions they continue to make into and through adulthood.”

City Councilmember Ayanna Pressley, who has been pushing for condom availability for years, told Boston.com that she was elated by the decision. “It was a long time coming,” she said. And, to celebrate the victory, the city’s former director of public school health education put on a hat that looked like the tip of a condom and posed for pictures. She told Boston.com, “I’ve been working on this for 15 years. They have the option to be safe now.”

Trade Commission Rules on Vibrator Patent

The United States International Trade Commission ruled this week that at least one sex toy maker was violating a patent held by Canadian company Standard Innovation Corp. by selling vibrators that were too similar to the company’s patented We-Vibe. The commission ordered other companies, including the popular sex toy manufacturer Lelo, to stop making and selling these products.

The We-Vibe is shaped like an elongated letter C and is designed so that one side sits inside the vagina and the other stays outside, stimulating the clitoris. Because each side is so flat, the vibrator can remain inside the vagina while a couple has intercourse. The We-Vibe, which sells for between $79 and $170, is enormously popular; it has had cumulative sales of over $100 million in the last five years. The vibrator was first released in 2008, and a fourth generation will be available this fall.

The company argued that two of Lelo’s vibrators, called the Tiani and the Tiani 2, were too similar to the We-Vibe. It also filed suit against Lelo in civil court. The suit was put on hold while the two sides waited for the commission’s rulings, but Standard Innovation Corp. plans to continue it now, especially since the commission ordered Lelo to release numbers on how much profit it has made on its two C-shaped models.

Lelo is protesting the commission’s decision, calling it in a statement “a clear setback for the American consumer, and the industry as a whole.” The decision can be overturned within 60 days by the Obama administration and can also be appealed in federal court. In addition, Lelo says that it is planning to sue Standard Innovation in federal court in California “for alleged infringement of one of Lelo’s own patents.”

Still, Standard Industry feels this was a decisive victory. The company’s CEO, Danny Oscado, told CNBC, “This is a patent we feel very strongly about and for us, [it’s about] bringing a product to market with the level of quality and sophistication we believe the market deserves to have.” He went on to say that the company was going to try to get the We-Vibe, which is currently available on the websites of large drugs such as CVS, Walgreens, and Target, on to the store shelves soon.

A Street Fight Between a Vulva, a Penis, and a Bystander

Pedestrians in Glastonbury, a small town in Somerset, England, saw an unusual sight last Friday, as a vulva struggled to break up a fight between a penis and an offended bystander. OK, it wasn’t actually a vulva and a penis; it was two members from a local acting troupe known as the Nomadic Academy of Fools. One was dressed as a penis and one a vulva to promote the group’s upcoming productions Women Who Wank and the Penis Monologues.

A passerby who was outraged by their costumes confronted the actors. Chris Murray, the actor wearing the penis costume, explained, “I could tell by his body language that he was really angry. I tried to calm him down, I wasn’t looking for a fight; but he grabbed my hat, tore it off and chucked it on the pavement.” His colleague Joanne Tremarco, who was wearing the vulva costume, stepped in between to try and stop the fight.

When the police arrived, they sided with the bystander and demanded that Murray and Tremarco leave the premises. Inspector Mark Nicholson told the Central Somerset Gazette, “We wouldn’t have stopped the play going ahead, but it’s not appropriate to have costumes and swear words like that in the streets where young children and other people could see them and be offended.”