Why Our Young People (Yes, Even 11-Year-Olds) Need Condoms

The strategy for lowering STIs and HIV infections among our youth shouldn't focus on abstinence, it should focus on safer sex and empowerment.

Posted: 04/21/2011 11:29 AM EDT
Filed Under HIV

Condoms

Last week all hell broke loose when the media got wind that a Philadelphia-based safer sex campaign for young people was offering free condoms for tweens as young as 11 years old. And while some media outlets did a decent job of reporting on the health initiative fairly, others chose to anchor their stories under the belief that that these types of campaigns only encourage young people to have sex. But what was most disappointing was that most outlets ran with headlines solely focusing on the 11-year-old angle.

That's unfair because the reality is that Take Control Philly does more than mail free rubbers to sixth graders.

The campaign—which is funded by the city's health department—steps in where our schools have failed and educates young people about the importance of using condoms, what condoms protect them from, the importance of getting tested for STIs and HIV, and provides a city map of where teens can locate free condoms. It even offers an 86-page book that provides information and resources for professionals and educators who work in teen health.

All in all, the initiative promotes a sex-positive attitude, where sex isn't looked at as something bad, but something to be smart and empowered about. In my book that's a good thing.

So instead of attacking the city of Philadelphia, we should be commending them, because instead of viewing the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a moral issue, city officials understand that HIV/AIDS and STIs are a public health crisis.

Yes, a public health crisis that needs to be dealt with a "by any means necessary" attitude.   

In a recent press release Philly's youth, Donald F. Schwarz, M.D., deputy mayor for Health and Opportunity and commissioner for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said:

"According to a national survey of high school youth, Philadelphia has the highest number of youth who have been sexually active, the highest number who became sexually active before age thirteen, and the highest number of youth who have had four or more sexual partners. Yet we have one of the lowest numbers of youth who report using a condom. This growing problem poses a clear danger to the future health and welfare of our city. We must do all we can to provide Philadelphians with the information and resources to protect themselves and their families."

By just looking at the rising rates of STI and HIV rates among Black teens, I understand parents' fear of a campaign like this. I also understand how immature young people can be and how invincible they feel in terms of assessing risk and danger, which scare parents even more about their kids having sex. And no, I am not in any means advocating that 11-year olds should have sex. But that pesky elephant in the room needs to be addressed: Young folks are having sex, and delaying sex may not be a realistic option. And if it’s not, shouldn't our youth be prepared, educated and armed with the tools that they need in order to protect themselves and their health?

I would hope so. 

Yet that isn't what's happening. We are basically throwing our children to the wolves because they don't live up to our expectations. And that's sad, because right now, the gap between what our kids need to know about safer sex and what they do know is entirely too wide.

Parents need to get over their own hang-ups about sex and decide which is more important: Being righteous or protecting your child's health. The answer should be the latter.

(Photo: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)

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