Why Condoms for Kindergartners Makes Sense

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"Condoms for kindergartners" is a very catchy slogan, but as an explanation of the much-maligned Provincetown, Mass., school-board policy to help prevent both STDs and unwanted pregnancy, it pretty much misses the mark.

The policy, left intentionally open-ended, allows any student who is considering sexual activity to request condoms from the school nurse. That student would first get counseling—including abstinence education. The parents would not be informed.

So theoretically, yes, a 6-year-old could walk in and request condoms. The chances of that happening, of course, are slim—but if a 6-year-old were asking about sex, wouldn't a little counseling from a medical professional be in order?

So let's disabuse the notion put forth by Kris Mineu, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who was quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, "This is the theater of the absurd to hand condoms to first-graders who don't even know what their purpose possibly could be, who can't even spell sex,'' he said. First graders who can't spell "sex" won't go seeking out condoms. And putting condoms in the nurse's office won't suddenly make those kids start having S-E-X-ual thoughts.

Study after study show that making condoms available to students doesn't make them more likely to have intercourse. It just makes the intercourse that students are having that much safer. A few studies have shown lower rates of sexual activity in schools that offer free condoms: one study of Philadelphia schools showed rates of sexual activity drop from 64 to 58 percent in schools with condoms versus a 3 percent increase in schools without.

That is because condoms don't make kids have sex. Hormones make kids have sex. Peer pressure makes kids have sex. Super-sexualized television, movies, and music videos make kids have sex. The kids who want to have sex, who are coursing with hormones and are super-hot for one another and have brains that can't yet process long-term consequences nor provide much in the way of impulse control, are going to have sex with or without condoms.

However, not all kids who have sex feel this way. There are kids who want to have sex because they're getting pressure from their boyfriend or girlfriend, because they're trying to get over the guy from Glee Club who dumped them, or because they want to prove they're not a kid anymore. Those kids are the ones who would most benefit from this program: kids who go to the nurse to get condoms and end up getting advice and reassurance that they don't have to have sex on someone else's timeline.

OK, fine—so why not make this very adult counseling/condom distribution available only to teenagers? Those are the kids with hormones; those are the kids who feel the most pressure to fit in. Why bother innocent middle-school kids—or worse, kids in the fifth grade and younger—about such complicated issues?

As nice as it would be to think that all 11-year-olds, or 10-year-olds, or 13-year-olds, are immune from sexual pressure, that's not the case: kids develop on different timelines, and kids date outside their age range. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that more than 40 percent of middle-school students interviewed at one school dated someone two years older or more, and of those students (median age: 11 and a half), they were 30 times more likely to have had sex. And those are the kids most in need of the counseling provided by a caring adult.

To argue that the caring adult in question should be a parent is admirable, but it's as unrealistic as saying that 12-year-olds just don't have sex. If parents want their kids to come to them when they're ready for sex, then it's up to the parents to establish an open and comfortable relationship. And if you, as a parent, have built that that relationship with your kid, congratulations! But not everyone has such a stellar support system. A CDC study shows that only 48.5 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys ages 18 and 19 had talked to their parents about safe sex.

So having a school nurse trained on how to talk to kids about safe sex, available to talk to kids about sex, and providing access to reliable birth control is a really good thing for kids: it helps kids who are going to have sex anyway do it safely. It helps kids who are unsure to sort out their feelings. And it provides the education that doesn't always come from home, even if some people think it should.

Now the school district is considering rewriting the policy so that the counseling is available only to students in the fifth grade and up. In practice, it probably won't make much of a difference, and the district was right to value the safety of its students over the moral hand-wringing of well-meaning but uninformed parents and pundits. But it's a shame it had to face such scorn and derision in the first place. The kids in Provincetown are safer now than they were last year—but how many other schools decided that enacting a similar policy just wasn't worth the bad PR?