Common sense and condom sense seldom accompany each other these days. The mere mention of condom education is enough to make otherwise sensible people emotionally charged and vocal about what they think sex education should be or not be. Some argue it is a matter of morals, but whose morals?
National organizations and leaders give conflicting opinions on the subject. Some encourage condom education, citing data suggesting that it, along with sex education, can delay the onset of sexual activity and promote responsible sexual activity using contraception.
Other groups say teaching about condoms gives an implicit permission to the sexually curious teenager to experiment, which violates beliefs against premarital sex. Condom education has thus become for many not a rational educational issue, but a personal, political, or religious one.
Meanwhile, however, the statistical evidence leaves little doubt that American teenagers are sexually active--and that that fact carries consequences for them and for the country. The average age to have sexual intercourse for the first time in the United States is l6 years for girls and 15.5 years for boys. Every 30 seconds a teenage girl becomes pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and every l3 seconds a teenager contracts a sexually transmitted disease. There are an estimated 1 million teenage pregnancies a year, and 3 million teenagers--one out of six--will contract a sexually transmitted disease this year.
Today, AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death for those in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, and 1 out of 500 college students--approximately 25,000 to 35,000--are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
But as many educators note, the threat of death seems remote to most young people. Because the young feel invincible, immortal, death in the abstract is not a strong enough deterrent to keep them from having sex. That is why some educators have described sexually active teenagers as a ticking time bomb for the AIDS/HIV/STD epidemic in the making.
What, then, are classroom teachers, the people in the trenches, to do as they try to wrestle with the sensitive issues involved with condom education? Ironically, many of the “experts” who speak to them on the subject do so from Washington, Atlanta, or some university or church tower. And they are telling teachers how to do things that they themselves have never done. The experts don’t live in the community or know how or what to say face-to-face to students, parents, or school boards.
What I have found, in travels across the country to advise schools on health-related concerns, is that there are pockets of brilliance and pockets of ignorance when it comes to condom education. And the two are not always in the expected places. For instance, sensitive yet realistic condom education can be found in some schools in the Bible Belt, and yet not be found in the schools of some large urban areas.
Here, gleaned from my experiences in training some 30,000 educators nationwide, are seven pieces of advice for those considering condom education. These are suggestions not from the “experts,” but from teachers actually teaching about condoms and their use.
- Not schools alone--involve the community, especially the parents.
Do parents want condom education in the schools? National surveys say yes. A Gallup poll published in the Phi Delta Kappan in 1988 indicated that 81 percent of public-school parents wanted “teaching the use of condoms” for aids education. In 1990, the Gallup poll found that more people wanted AIDS education than sex education in the schools. Perhaps this is because some people see AIDS education as disease control while others see sex education as birth control.
Regardless of this backdrop of support, however, each community needs to develop with care its own condom-education program. Schools cannot perform the task alone, for if the school teaches one message and the community another, the program will lack effectiveness. Successful programs start with community meetings that bring together a range of people beyond the school, enlisting their views and support from the beginning. Outside experts who have dealt with the issues in other communities are brought in to share their experiences. Among those also invited are school-board members, local politicians, medical experts, religious leaders, community and business leaders, parents, school administrators, teachers, and students. What emerges from such meetings is a community consensus on what is an appropriate message--one that is sensitive to the needs and values of the community, yet realistic.
Community involvement fosters ownership, which helps ensure successful implementation of the program in the school, home, and community.
Successful programs incorporate condom education into a sound educational framework, such as a comprehensive K-l2 health-education curriculum. The content area might be communicable-disease education, AIDS/HIV education, sex education, sexually-transmitted-disease education, or family-life education. This approach helps desensitize and clarify the condom issues as well as allay fears.
Prevention messages must be clear, direct, and in a language students can understand.
Many schools develop programs with messages that reflect several themes, from sexual abstinence to condom education, which are adjusted for different grade levels. They may start with a “Just say no” message for drugs in early elementary school. This is continued in the upper-elementary grades and sometimes extended to sex education. In most schools, in grade 7 or 8, “Just say no” refers to both drug use and sexual behavior. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 (and sometimes as early as grade 4 or as late as grade 12), schools move the message to “Just say know” and condom education is taught with increasing emphasis at each grade level.
A description of what many schools do can be stated simply as “the ABC’s of sex education": Abstinence, Be monogamous, and Condoms.
Almost all schools stress abstinence (no sex, no drugs) as the best way to avoid diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Monogamy is taught as “refraining from sexual activity until as adults you are ready to establish a mutually faithful relationship, such as in marriage.” But, since many high-school students are already sexually active, many schools teach about condoms with the message that they reduce but do not eliminate the risk of disease or pregnancy.
Teachers I have talked to stress that to teach about sexual issues you must teach about drugs, because AIDS/HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases can in many respects be considered to be drug-related illnesses. Certainly, under the influence of drugs, people--especially the young--may not be able to make responsible decisions regarding sexual behavior.
But facts alone are not enough. Students need to be taught life skills. Programs need to stress behavioral strategies to empower students to avoid risky sexual behaviors. Decisionmaking skills, assertive communication, stress management, conflict resolution, and self-esteem skills help students take control of their lives.
There is a difference between condom education and condom instruction. Condom education usually takes this form:
“Here is a condom, use it.” As one educator said, “We can talk about condoms here, but we can’t touch them.”
But since condom effectiveness is dependent on correct use, condom education without instruction is unrealistic.
You need condom instruction that addresses at a minimum these areas: where to obtain condoms, the need to use a latex condom labeled for disease prevention, and the need to use it from start to finish for any type of sexual contact.
Students need to be told that the condom must be put on before any contact, and that it only goes on one way. Teachers should instruct them to: Pinch the tip of the condom for a space for the ejaculate before you unroll it to the base of the penis. Use a lubricant with a spermicide such as nonoxynol-9. After ejaculation remove the condom before the penis becomes flaccid and dispose of the condom in the trash, not in toilets where they may cause problems in sewers.
Even the National PTA states that “ages l3 and up are high risk” and says that teens should know the following fact: “correctly using a latex condom with nonoxynol-9 every time one has sexual intercourse lowers the chance of getting HIV”
Abstinence should always preface any condom-education message. If for no other reason, this should be done to let students know that “everybody is not doing it.” In fact, most students in grades 7-12 are not sexually active, and almost all experts suggest that abstinence be encouraged. Many educators stress abstinence as the best way (medically and morally) to protect yourself from disease and pregnancy. They note that even if a student has been sexually active, he or she can be a ''born-again virgin” and have “second virginity.” Just because you said yes once doesn’t mean you have to say it again.
A general rule of condom education is “no surprises.” Do not teach something that administrators, parents, and the school board do not know about.
Condom education should be stated in the goals, objectives, activities, and evaluation components of a school program. Implied messages produce controversy and confusion.
In-service training needs to be provided, so that teachers can develop the skills to teach these sensitive messages.
Parents should be notified--and indeed involved with the program’s development. Parental consent should be encouraged, but not mandatory. Parents should have the right to withdraw their students from condom education, but they should be notified if they do, of their responsibility to teach this potentially life-saving information to their children.
Regardless of what they are taught, a substantial portion of high-school students are going to have sexual experiences before they graduate. They need to know now the information and skills that can save their lives.
In my experience, educators who teach about condoms are likely to echo the thoughts of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, when he said of condom education: “It might offend some people, and I’m sorry about that. I wish this wasn’t necessary to talk about, but it is, and we can’t let people die in ignorance.”
For many educators today, it is morally irresponsible not to teach abstinence and condom education.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Common Sense on Condom Education