Condom Programs Don’t Spur Sex, Study Says

By Debra Viadero — October 08, 1997 4 min read

Advocates for AIDS-prevention programs last week said they were counting on a new study to bolster efforts to make condoms widely available to students in schools.

But school officials in Chicago and New York City suggested that those advocates are likely to be disappointed.

The study, published last week in the Sept. 30 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, compares the rates of condom use and sexual activity among students in New York City, which offers condoms in public high schools, and in Chicago, which generally does not.

The researchers found, contrary to critics’ predictions, that making condoms available in school did not make teenagers more likely to have sex.

But ready access to condoms did prompt more students to use them, the report concludes. Students who were considered to be at highest risk of contracting AIDS--those who had three or more sexual partners within the preceding six months--were even more likely to have used condoms.

“This is one more study--and a very significant one--saying that school-based condom availability works,” said Kent Klindera, the associate director of HIV/sexually-transmitted-disease education for Advocates for Youth, a Washington nonprofit group. “I would hope this study is going to help school condom availability in New York City and a lot of places.”

Controversy over New York’s condom-availability program was a factor in the ouster of Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez in 1992. He launched the program a year earlier as part of an AIDS-prevention effort.

Since then, supporters contend, the program has been progressively weakened. Most recently, Chancellor Rudy F. Crew in 1995 ended classroom demonstrations of condom use and required schools to establish separate resource rooms, operated by teacher volunteers, where students can pick up condoms and request a demonstration.

No Policy Changes

So far, school officials in both New York and Chicago are not planning to step up efforts to distribute condoms in schools as a result of the study.

“This is but one small issue that the chancellor and this board of education do not want to usurp the rest of their priorities,” said J.D. LaRock, a spokesman for the New York district.

“We do not look at one study and try to develop policy on that,” said Lula Ford, a school leadership-development officer for the Chicago schools.

In that Midwestern city, students get lessons on abstinence, condom use, and AIDS prevention in middle school and high school--just as they do in New York. But condoms are available only at the four Chicago high schools that have privately supported health clinics on campus.

“At no time are we going to make condoms available on a blanket basis to all students,” Ms. Ford said.

Providing Cover

Financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study is part of a three-year evaluation of New York City’s condom-availability program. The six authors are: Sally Guttmacher of the department of health studies at New York University; Lisa Lieberman of Healthy Concepts, a New City, N.Y., nonprofit firm; David Ward of the department of health administration and policy, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Nick Freudenberg of the Center on AIDS, Drugs, and Community Health, Hunter College, New York; Alice Radosh of the Academy for Educational Development, New York; and Don Des Jarlais of the Chemical Dependency Institute, Beth Israel Medical Center, also in New York.

The research, conducted in 1994, involved 7,000 randomly selected students in 12 New York high schools and a demographically similar group of 6,000 students from 10 Chicago schools. Half of the racially mixed groups were boys and half were girls. In both cities, the students were initiating sexual activity at similar ages and engaging in sexual activity at similar rates. For example, in both New York and Chicago, 47 percent of new students and 60 percent of the students who had been in high school a year or more in both cities reported being sexually active.

But in New York, 61 percent of the students engaging in sex said they had used a condom the last time they had intercourse, compared with 56 percent of the sexually active teenagers in Chicago. Researchers characterized that difference as “modestly significant” and cause for considering school-based condom-distribution programs as a way to lower urban teenagers’ risk of contracting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

New York students who had been in high school longer were even more likely to use condoms.

For his part, Mr. Fernandez, New York City’s former chancellor, said he felt vindicated by the findings.

“Perhaps, for superintendents that were afraid because of what happened to me, this report will give them some cover so they can address the issue,” said Mr. Fernandez, who is now a consultant in Pinellas County, Fla.