Responding to the fact that nine girls in middle school and high school got pregnant this year, a school district in Marion County, Oregon, has decided to start handing out free condoms. Since the middle school starts in sixth grade, the panic-inducing headlines naturally focus on that age group. The district has justified this choice by pointing out that one of the pregnant girls was in middle school, demonstrating a clear need for contraception access.
So, is it time to tear our hair out and run around the streets lamenting the end of civilization? Not quite. The fear, of course, is that obtaining a condom will inspire kids to go looking for sex, much like discovering the ring of power sent Frodo on a multimovie trek to Mordor. But while it’s easy to overrate the erotic powers of a condom in theory, an extensive research project involving nearly 10,000 women and teenage girls in St. Louis found that giving women access to free contraception did not compel them to seek out new sexual partners. It did, however, significantly lower the rates of unintended childbirth and abortion. The American Academy of Pediatrics concurs, arguing that while condom access does not increase rates of sexual activity, it does increase rates of condom use for kids who do have sex.
Outraged headlines about sixth graders getting condoms may attract a lot of clicks, but Guttmacher Institute research shows that kids don’t have much interest in having sex at that age, making it likely that most of the condoms that are given out will be used by eighth graders and high school students. The reality is that there’s a sharp rise in the percentage of teenagers having sex in every year of adolescence, as anyone who has had or been a teenager knows.
Parents can generally rest easy, knowing that just because sixth graders can have sex doesn’t mean most of them want to. While most middle schoolers will not actually use the free condoms, knowing that they are available might instill in their minds from an early age the idea that condoms are normal and not shameful, which may increase the chances that they will use them down the road, when they do have sex. Which they will.