Condoms for kids: Sexuality is not issue now--it's survival


The first time I summoned the courage to buy condoms, I walked into a drug store not far from my parents' house and thought:

A) The pharmacist, in a voice that would carry like a Gene Pitney falsetto across the entire store, would ask me for proof of my age.

Or, B) The pharmacist, in a voice like a Roy Orbison falsetto that would carry across the entire store and onto Liberty Heights Avenue where a large crowd of onlookers would be gathered for the occasion of my humiliation, would declare, "Why, Michael Olesker! Do your parents know you're buying condoms? I'm calling your mother right now!"

Or, C) The pharmacist, in a voice like the entire original Broadway cast of "West Side Story" gathered at the intersection of Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak Avenue, would bellow, "Condoms? Why would a boy like you need to buy condoms?"

Actually, I needed condoms for the same reason every other boy of my generation needed them: To carry them in my wallet and create an indented circle so that, even though I might never have actual use for the condom, I could at least show the other guys that I was hip enough to have one in my wallet.

Times, in case you hadn't noticed, change.

Baltimore, the City That Reads, is known in health circles as The City That Breeds. We're among the nation's leaders in teen-age pregnancies. America, whose venereal disease concerns could once be dismissed with shots of penicillin, now trembles in the age of AIDS.

And teen-agers, who once worried about sneaking into drug stores or gas station lavatories to buy condoms, are suddenly and rather openly being given birth control devices at some schools.

It's no longer a question of sexuality; it's a question of survival.

Without any fanfare, Baltimore's Health Department has begun dispensing both birth control pills and condoms to students at seven city schools who say they need them. If it works there, you can bet the idea will spread.

While this is going on, the Talbot County school board has been debating a similar program for its high schools.

Late last week, this newspaper carried the first story of Baltimore schools' birth control efforts. Next week, presumably, we will hear the first shrilly shrieks of parents who feel the schools have no business discussing sex with their kids.

That sort of cry has already been heard across Talbot County.

But the logic of the outcries falls apart immediately.

It presumes that teen-age boys and girls, at the moment they're embarking on their sexual journeys, march into their parents' living rooms to declare:

"Mother and father, my current steady and I are thinking of having sex. Could you advise me on the proper use of condoms?"

Forty-five percent of Talbot County eighth-graders reported having had sexual intercourse, according to a 1987-1989 Johns Hopkins University survey sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Nearly 21 percent reported having sex at least once a month.

It doesn't work that way. Much of the time, teen-agers are still rolling the dice with their love lives, having sex without any kind of contraception. (In Talbot County, for example, a survey indicated that by the 10th grade, 36 percent of the students were having sex at least once a month, but only 11 percent were using contraceptives.)

And while we can all applaud the warm, nurturing atmosphere some parents created that encourages talk of contraception at home, history indicates they're in something of a minority.

Baltimore led the nation's big cities in the percentage of babies born to teen-agers in 1988, the most recent year for which figures are available, and teens accounted for 30 percent of this city's gonorrhea cases last year.

When you have those kind of statistics, you do not need to explain the dispensing of contraceptives in schools. You need to explain why no one has done this long before now.

Inevitably, a question arises: Does any of this encourage kids to becomesexually active? Does the handing out of contraceptives give a kind of societal go-ahead to an activity once considered officially frowned upon?

Health officials don't think so. They're aiming for youngsters with a history of sex but not much history of thinking about its consequences. For these youngsters, the choice isn't whether to have sex; it's whether to have it with protection.

When these kids sit down with Health Department counselors, it's not going to be like a visit to a drug store, where you fork over money and somebody hands over condoms.

At the schools, before handing out contraceptives, health workers are discussing all forms of birth control -- including abstinence -- and answering questions these kids have never been able to ask anywhere else.

Imagine that: Instead of the sexual process involving lots of sneaking and snickering and confusion, teen-agers who want condoms will actually get a heart-to-heart talk about what they're about to do.

When's the last time that ever happened at a drug store or a gas station?

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