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Condom issue isn't black and white

Date: 4/9/2012

April 9, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Wouldn't it be great if issues were just black and white — two sides, two paths, two possible actions?

Few matters in human behavior are like that though.

For instance, take the condom issue that has been raised by the the policy passed by the Springfield School Committee.

Naturally, one would like to see a positive result from simply telling children that sexual activity could lead to an unwanted pregnancy, a disease or emotional distress, instead of handing them an object that may go against a family's religious beliefs or morality.

But I fear that human history has proven that these messages do not have the best track record with all audiences. The clergy, parents and arbiters of public morality have delivered them for decades and teens still have sex.

A 2010 study, published in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, indicated that about a third of sixth- and seventh-graders in the study who completed an abstinence-focused program in one urban school system started having sex within the next two years, but nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active.

Yes, it's a triumph I suppose that some eighth graders aren't having sex. When I was in eighth grade I barely understood the idea, much less sought to participate.

Holyoke has had a condom program in schools for seven years and according to 2009 teen birth rates, still had the highest rates in the state.

Of course, one could argue that if Holyoke's condom policy has prevented one unwanted child or one case of a sexually transmitted disease wouldn't it be worth it?

So what works? What prevents young people from doing something that could have a consequence for the rest of their lives?

That, my friends, is the principle question. We've spent million upon millions fighting illegal drugs, discouraging the use of tobacco and alcohol and educating children about safe sexual practices. Is it working?

Consider this: in 2010 the head of the Centers for Disease Control reported that despite a continual decline in the number of people who smoked over the past 40 years, since 2005 the percentage has remained stuck at about 20 percent. Shouldn't it be lower?

I know that many people believe that access to condoms is the equivalent to a gateway drug. If kids have them they will use them.

I would like to submit the following: the young people who are willing to go to a school nurse and ask for a condom are also the ones who are least likely to have sex. In other words, these are the responsible teens who are thinking about what they are doing before they do it.

How do we reach teens who think they know it all — and they don't — and believe that sex is an activity of the moment and don't care if they lack basic knowledge about such things?

Parents are the major part of my answer. If you have engaged parents who are actually involved in their child's life, I think they will have a very good chance of instilling values that would lead to good behaviors.

Frankly I'm in favor of the Springfield condom program if it is shown to have actually decreased unwanted pregnancies and stopped the spread of disease. I don't think this should be a measure that is set up and allowed to run on autopilot. I think that after the first school year, there should be a review of data.

And I'm the first to admit that handing out a condom to a 12 year-old makes me very uneasy.

But giving a kid a condom after they go through the proposed educational program is not nearly enough. Parents have to take greater responsibility.

We live in a society in which sexual references are prevalent. One could argue that, through a study of popular culture of the last century, that while references and depictions of sex have always been with us, they are much more blatant and pervasive today.

I'm no prude. I'm not looking for government censorship. Parents should talk to their children about what they read, see and hear.

The era of looking to schools to fix such problems and then blaming schools if they don't find a suitable solution should be over.

Hey, agree with me? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.

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