A new initiative spearheaded by San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza and the San Francisco Department of Public Health is slated to distribute free condoms to Bay Area middle school students. Reactions from concerned parents and the religious right not only reflect a national aversion to sex education but also question the effectiveness of handing out condoms. Ultimately, schools must go past offering free contraception and take a more active and nuanced role in fostering sex-positive relationships.
It is already common knowledge that abstinence-only sex education is detrimental to communities and young adults’ ideas of healthy sexual relationships. But when SFUSD proposes going one step further by letting students access condoms, old fears rise up again. As one parent said, “[it] would be a distraction and [it’s] not the teacher’s job.”
Interestingly enough, one country has made this type of curriculum part of teachers’ pedagogical duties at all grade levels. In the Netherlands, where the teen pregnancy rate is five times lower than that in the United States, sex education starts as early as kindergarten, and students learn about birth control around age 11. The difference is that their model puts discussions of intimacy and bodily safety first — a far cry from the cold, clinical lessons featuring anatomical cross-sections here in the United States. Without mention of sexual pleasure, the importance of consent and the destigmatization of sex, the current model of U.S. sex education is incomplete. SFUSD has developed plans for open discussions, providing instructional pamphlets as well as a required meeting with a nurse or social worker — however, one meeting isn’t enough to foster sexual positivity that should theoretically span across years of education.
According to the district, around 5.2 percent of middle schoolers are sexually active. Some parents might find this low percentage a case against radical sex education and the availability of condoms to students who won’t use or need them. However, the measures taken by SFUSD and other school districts are not simply meant for immediate results; international studies show that comprehensive sex education at a young age has far-reaching effects, such as increases in self-esteem, communication and a decrease in the likelihood of rape. In addition, the program ensures confidentiality except in cases of abuse, where Child Protective Services will be alerted; this safety measure can be instrumental for a student, particularly when his or her parents are against comprehensive sex education. Despite the fact that a middle schooler might not use one, a condom could serve as an icebreaker for the ongoing conversation on positive sex relations that will last throughout a student’s lifetime, and the candid talk with a school nurse is just the beginning of his or her preparation for adulthood.
Another widely successful contraception program can serve as a good example; in a six-year experiment in Colorado where teens and impoverished women were offered a variety of free birth control methods, teen birth rates dropped by 40 percent and abortions dropped by 42 percent. This longitudinal study found a strong positive correlation between unwanted pregnancies, sparse access to sex education and high poverty rates. With an average poverty rate of 11.3 percent — compared to the national average of 15.9 percent — San Francisco and its middle schools are no exception to this rule. It is therefore integral that students — socioeconomically disadvantaged ones in particular — receive a quality sex education and exposure to contraceptive methods to spread knowledge and help break the cycle of poverty.
The bottom line is that students, especially those in need, require a stable presence of resources, including those related to sexual health that have had measurable positive results. However, as long as condoms maintain their current taboo status, students’ future sexual relationships may be colored with shame, creating unhealthy interactions. If sex education is reformed to be less sterile and more about communication between partners, these programs are more likely to have successful, future-oriented results.