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Why Our Youth Desperately Need Condoms

By Kellee Terrell

May 16, 2011

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell

A few weeks ago, all media hell broke loose when the national news got wind of a Philadelphia, Pa.-based safer-sex campaign that is offering free condoms to teens and tweens as young as 11 years old. While some media outlets did a decent job of reporting on the health initiative fairly, others chose to anchor their stories in the belief that these types of campaigns are morally problematic and encourage teen sex. But regardless of whether the coverage is fair or biased, most articles ran with sensationalized headlines that focused on the "11-year-old" angle.

These one-sided characterizations are unfair because the campaign, which is called 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 why using condoms is important, what condoms protect them from, why they need to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and where they can locate free condoms in their area. The campaign's Web site even boasts an 86-page guide that provides information and sexual health resources for youths, as well as for professionals and educators who work in teen health. The content on the Web site, written in a non-judgmental tone and promoting a sex-positive attitude, serves as a safe space for teens to learn about sex not as something that is "bad," but as something to be smart and empowered about.

In a city with a youth HIV/AIDS prevalence rate that is five times the national average, I can understand the need for a campaign like this. In a press release explaining why the city decided to take this approach, Donald F. Schwarz, M.D., Philly's Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity and Commissioner for 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.

Despite the best intentions and very few complaints from parents, Philadelphia's health officials are now coming under fire and being accused by some talking heads of "not letting kids be kids" and "encouraging 11-year-olds to have sex." In reality, Philly's health department deserves to be commended for having enough sense to understand that the HIV and STD epidemics are not a moral issue, but a public health crisis that need to be dealt with by any means necessary -- even if it makes people uncomfortable.


Sadly, this incident illuminates a larger battle in the ongoing culture wars being fought in the U.S. between conservatives and liberals. After eight years of federally funded abstinence-only education (thanks Dubya) and its utter failure to protect our youth's reproductive health, we should all be signing off on what numerous studies say works: full disclosure of the facts, condoms and all.

Yet our society's puritanical view of sex prevents many of us from getting on the same page.

Please don't get me wrong: I empathize with parents who are mortified by the thought of their kids having sex. I get that they don't want their kids to grow up too soon or put themselves at risk of the many dangers, physical and emotional, that sex can lead to. I also understand that there are teens that have sex only as a means to feel loved, to be accepted by their peers or to please others. Not to mention that too many young people take sexual risks because they feel invincible.

And in no way am I advocating that 11-year-olds should have sex. But here's the deal: Our kids are having sex. Many of them are beyond delaying sex. They should be prepared, educated and armed with the tools that they need in order to protect themselves and their health. But instead, we are willing to throw our kids to the wolves because they don't live up to our expectations.

Why is that?

If the drama around Take Control Philly demonstrates anything, it's that, at some point, we grown-ups are going to have to admit that our self-righteousness and fears are not protecting anyone. They are only helping to bring about the next generation of people living with HIV in this country: Our children.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More HIV Prevention and Education Web Sites for Young People


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