(No) Condom Culture: Why Teens Aren’t Practicing Safe Sex

The percentage of young people using condoms has stalled, while STD rates are on the rise

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There were certain things that the 1990s just did better — including getting the word out about the dangers of unprotected sex.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of American students using condoms hit its peak at around 60% a decade ago, and has stalled since then, even declining among some demographics. A recent study released by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada found that nearly 50% of sexually active college students aren’t using condoms. Other reports have found that while teenagers are likely to use a condom the first time they have sex, their behavior becomes inconsistent after that.

Health officials from Oregon to Georgia are ringing alarm bells about rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, worried that kids aren’t getting the message. Sex education is more robust than it was for previous generations, but a 2012 Guttmacher Institute report revealed that while nearly 90% of high schools are teaching students about abstinence and STDs, fewer than 60% are providing lessons about contraception methods.

The CDC estimates that half of new STD infections occur among young people. Americans ages 15 to 24 contract chlamydia and gonorrhea at four times the rate of the general population, and those in their early 20s have the highest reported cases of syphilis and HIV. Young men and women are more likely than older people to report having no sex in the past year, yet those who are having sex are more likely to have multiple partners, which increases the risk of STDs.

“We need to do better as a nation,” says Laura Kann, an expert in youth risk behaviors at the CDC. “Far too many kids in this country continue to be infected with HIV and continue to be at risk.”

When condom-usage rates were on the upswing in the ’90s, America was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic that was claiming young lives daily. The fear of the disease gave heft to safe-sex campaigns. Today, public-health officials are partly a victim of their own success; contemporary teenagers grew up after the terror had subsided, thanks to antiviral drugs and those messages that helped bring infection rates down. “The young people today know HIV as a manageable, chronic disease,” Kann says. “It’s not something that can kill you in their eyes. So that leads, most likely, to an attitude that it’s not something that they have to protect themselves from.”

In Oregon’s Lane County, senior health official Patrick Luedtke is in the midst of confronting an ongoing gonorrhea outbreak, with rates jumping as much as 40% in recent years. Like Kann, he believes complacency is a large part of the problem. “People don’t have the fear of death from sex like they had 15 years ago,” he says. “For the teenagers, that fear is gone, and people are not practicing safe sex as much as they used to.”

Other research collected by the CDC shows that some schools aren’t hammering away at the safe-sex lessons like they once did. In Alabama, Alaska and Florida, for instance, fewer public schools are teaching teenagers how to obtain condoms and why it’s important to use condoms. “Schools have competing health issues that they’re asked to deal with, things like tobacco use, bullying, the obesity epidemic. It’s been hard to keep attention focused on HIV and STD prevention,” Kann says. “This complacency issue [is not] unique to just youth themselves.” Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement supporting better access to condoms for teenagers, saying schools are still hesitant to provide them because of an enduring fear that access to condoms will make kids have more sex.

Public institutions beyond schools have had setbacks too. Budget cuts in Oregon meant that Luedtke’s county closed its STD clinic. “People don’t stop having sex because of the bad economy,” he says. “Where are the resources?”

Even in places where there’s money and free condoms to go around, health departments haven’t necessarily seen safe sex go viral. New York City health officials are reporting that only 1 in 3 adult residents uses protection, despite years of PSAs and prophylactic handouts under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While condom use among young people in New York City is slightly up since 2009, that puts it on par with the stagnant nationwide average.

Kann says there are broader societal factors at work too, ones that disproportionately affect African-American youth. Compared with the population as a whole, their parents are less educated and have lower incomes, both factors that have been linked to sexually risky behaviors, including having unprotected sex. Adolescents who postpone sex have parents who are more educated. Lower incomes, meanwhile, are associated with factors like parents working multiple jobs, which can mean kids are left home alone without a watchful eye to factor into their decisionmaking.

Some research has suggested that sexually active Americans simply assume their partner is free of STDs, and an infected partner may be unaware, given that diseases like “silent” chlamydia often don’t have obvious symptoms. And there is a perception — if not a diehard belief — that using condoms makes sex less pleasurable. That’s why Bill Gates challenged designers earlier this year to create a better-feeling condom that sexually active people might be more likely to use.

While it’s hardly a sexy, revolutionary proposition like remaking the condom, Kann says the key to driving condom use higher is more education. Canada’s survey, for instance, was revealing about how relatively unimportant the students considered STDs. Those who used condoms were much more likely to cite pregnancy than STDs as their main concern; 54% said their single motivation for using protection was birth control, while just 6% cited STDs as their sole reason.

“It’s really critical for kids to know about their risk,” Kann says. “They need to know how to get tested. They need to know how to prevent infection. And we can’t do that alone here at CDC. We’re going to need action not only by this agency but also by parents, by schools and communities.”

336 comments
ChandraZarembinski
ChandraZarembinski

For so many teenagers, they feel like "it can't happen to me."  There is such a simple easy step to help prevent STD and unwanted pregnancies.  I just don't understand why more teenagers don't realize this is life saving.

TehReeUhSeh
TehReeUhSeh

Also with the rise of Plan B, a lot of teens (who aren't always the smartest of the bunch) choose Plan B as their contraceptive of choice. It doesn't matter that Plan B is exactly what it is named, Plan B when contraceptive fails. Funny how people would argue that Plan B would always remain emergency contraceptive, even if available over the counter. One of the reasons why it is better to play it safe than create change for the sake of change. 

cansand999
cansand999

How many of you fools that don't wear a condoms think you cant get HIV or a STD? And how may of you will support the child you create? How many of you guys are dumb enough to think a girl is always truthful.  How many of you girls are afraid that if you say no that he just will not go else where. Do you think this guy is going to stand by you if you get pregnant or infected. Guys Think with your big head,. Girl don't be so dumb

cansand999
cansand999

because that don't think with their right head. Times have change   but people haven't  AID is not just a Gay thing  Fool

Lestat70
Lestat70

My seniors told me, first sex should be skin to skin contact. So, i believe no one is using condom. 

WilliamBramblett
WilliamBramblett

Good lord, you make it sound so complicated.  Teens know, as does everyone else, that sex without condoms feels far better than with them… no comparison!  

notmyshametobear
notmyshametobear

There is so much coverage on teen moms these days, especially on MTV, that getting pregnant isn't as scary for teens as it used to be. Not that we want to scare them straight or anything, but I think that the threat of a baby isn't as much of a scare tactic when it comes to safe sex these days.

http://itisnotmyshametobear.blogspot.com/

azop12try
azop12try

Use a 'jimmy' one time and you'll know why kids don't use them.

jeffspicoli666
jeffspicoli666

Another stupid, over sensational article that future proves Time Magazine is detached from the modern world and I can't believe to imagine why anyone who isn't living in 1994 would be interested in anything Time has to say. Certainly can't think of anyone in my generation who read Time magazine... 

IllBeThatGuy
IllBeThatGuy

Too bad the STDs aren't lethal. Then we'd have a die off of all the stupid kids before they were old enough to use that stupidity for the detriment of humanity....

And no, I don't care how you feel about what I just said, so bother trying to shame me or whatever. You're probably one of the people I'm talking about.

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BiggerCock

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drzivnuska
drzivnuska

The teenage birth rate is the lowest in over 50 years.  It was 96.3 in 1957 and was a record low 29.4 last year.  In 1957, we had god in our schools and abstinance only sex education.

marksinghy2k
marksinghy2k

well in India a quiet revolution has started.. Condoms are very been used a lot. girls are seen buying it to be safe from HIV/STD/unwanted  Preg... 

Wonder what's wrong with West and Catholics. 

Ruffian
Ruffian

Here in Virginia, we have christian "pregnancy crisis centers" where teens and women are being told that condoms don't work.  They don't protect you from STD's.  They don't stop pregnancy.  There only make money for companies telling lies.  These crisis centers also say taking birth control pills gives girls cancer and will make them infertile for life.  NARAL did secret videos of these centers and it is a huge reason Ken Cuccinelli lost the governorship in VA.  Ken was a huge supporter of these christian centers.   If the education isn't there, the problem will only increase.

PatrickO'Brien
PatrickO'Brien

I have actually heard from younger buddies they dont use condoms and it blows my mind! How can people not in this day and age? There are STDs everywhere and anyone can get one. I guess people need a wake up call. 

pbug56
pbug56

I wonder how much of this is because of tea-whackers in several states eliminating birth control programs at Planned Parenthood and other locations?  They believe that birth control is a sin, far worse then teen sex and the like.

FeezySamuels
FeezySamuels

don't feel good 2 u$e condoms, deal with it. I dont worry about it cuz wuts the worst that can happen

e_lambert101
e_lambert101

I feel like all teenagers know about using condoms but just don't want to because their rebellious. I seriously think that, because people talked about condoms in middle school too, but they have a screw loose or something, they just don't want to do it. People are lazy. 

But people are always on about how abstinence only programs don't work, and while I agree for the general american public needs to use both talk about Condoms, STDs, etc. and abstinence,  it seems to me the people I grew up with were in abstinence only environments, (At least I don't THINK that they talked about sex) they haven't had sex before marriage or gotten pregnant. It's an interesting subject. 

VanG
VanG

Using a condom is great, but it still isn't 100% effective -- against getting pregnant or an STD!  The next step is to make sure everyone who is sexually active is getting regular STD testing.  The new platform at myluhu.com has some of the lowest testing fees around and you can get your blood drawn at a local lab -- not at a free clinic with long waits or your regular doctor's office with a raised eyebrow.  The results can be kept private or securely shared with your selected partner(s).  We have to do a better job in this country of facing the fact that STDs are a silent epidemic that soon will be making a lot more noise if we don't wake up and pay attention!!

NTF1
NTF1

Because sex sucks with a condom, people aren't scared straight anymore. 100% whats going on.

ssamwass
ssamwass

Make better condoms that don't smell & taste nasty and give em out for free on campus... Perhaps an idea to balance the cost in order to give them out for free or at least at a very low price, you could sell advertising space on the condom's packaging... Time to reinvent this stuff for 2014 & beyond. Know what I'm saying? Just my thoughts.

MissBecky!
MissBecky!

I practically never used a condom as a teenager, even though I wasn't on birth control. Pretty stupid, but I guess I should have known better. After way too many pregnancy scares, I eventually started taking birth control pills about half way through my freshman year of college, but still never used a condom.

Our high school sex ed never talked about condoms at all. Didn't even mention them. Only talked about abstinence. It was very superficial. It talked about family values and abstinance until marriage. They did talk about STDs for one hour one day, and they made it sound like having any kind of pre-marital sex would give you AIDs and that you would die from it almost immediately. They were so over-the-top about saying STDs will kill you if you have pre-marital sex, that nobody believed them and we all just laughed it off. 

Most other girls I know in their early twenties don't make guys use condoms, and won't say no to sex if a guy says that he forgot it. Dunno why that is, but Im the same way too. I think this article is totally right IMHO.

VincentVonDudler
VincentVonDudler

@IllBeThatGuy Too bad all STDs haven't been cured yet.  

vrome
vrome

@marksinghy2k  I don't know about India, but it's not like American teens are sleeping with prostitutes.  They don't have the money to do that.  And I'm sure if they were screwing hookers, they would use a condom.  


According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on STD's, 72% of all new cases of syphilis are in homosexuals.  With all the sex going on, it's still quite rare for a heterosexual teen to get syphilis, even if the number for teens contracting it is 4 times the rate of senior citizens contracting it.


As for HPV, the warts and cancers associated with it are being eradicated by vaccine in the American teen population.  I bet most won't ever see someone with a genital wart in their lifetime. 


As for HIV, the chance of a women contracting HIV from an infected partner through vaginal sex is about 6.5 in 10,000.  That is according to the British Medical Journal. BMJ 1992;304(6830):809-813.  That's quite a bit of sex and very low odds for contracting this disease.  In the US, effective treatment has lowered the viral load in infected people, often to undetectable levels, thereby reducing transmitability.  In addition, most teen males in the US are circumcised, which also reduces transmitability.


The bottom line is this:  many American teens aren't practicing safe sex because they don't know of anyone personally who has ever had syphilis, HIV or HPV.  And chlamydia and HSV-1 and HSV-2 frequently do not give any symptoms or discomfort so they would never know they had  been exposed to it.  So why use a condom?

IllBeThatGuy
IllBeThatGuy

Kids are getting dumber with machines to do the thinking for them.

baldwin.johnm
baldwin.johnm

@Ruffian How can anyone believe that? I'm extremely fertile (I'm 21 with two kids), and I have not gotten pregnant when I have been using condoms--lol only when I stopped using them. How can anyone believe condoms don't work? ( I don't LIKE condoms much...but they do work well.)

MorganSheridan
MorganSheridan

@pbug56 I'd guess most of it is.  That and the deliberate misinformation propaganda put out by the anti-science pro-life/crisis pregnancy organizations.  Of course, the downside to the rise in STDs will be the increase in STD related infertility in girls and boys who are so uneducated, they won't recognize their symptoms until it's too late to reverse the damage.
 

xmerrxo
xmerrxo

@FeezySamuels You've won the moron of the day award. You can collect your prize at the nearest Planned Parenthood.

MorganSheridan
MorganSheridan

@e_lambert101 Yeah.. abstinence worked so well in the 50s and 60s.  That's why my teenage neighbors were either having shotgun weddings at 14, 15 and 16 and finding themselves dropping out of schools, in abusive marriages they couldn't escape save for suicide or, as an alternative, sent off to homes for unwed mothers. 

xmerrxo
xmerrxo

@e_lambert101 I've got more than a few "rebellious" friends with minimum wage jobs, trying to juggle kids and going to college. It's really a fun subject indeed.

One that specifically stands out is the second one in my close friend group that got pregnant just after high school. She grew up in an "abstinence" totally religious household. Her rebellion was by far the worst, went down a path of drugs, alcohol, and eventually would up with a baby from a crackhead. Sounds like a plan, right?

tom2013cat
tom2013cat

@ssamwass Just like the paper ? but  had you think of what the well advertisment on the condem's packagings?

this is not a few spends.  condoms are the life necessary goods.

pbug56
pbug56

@MorganSheridan I wish that these whack jobs understood that the way to reduce the number of abortions is to get better birth control out there to more people, plus do a lot more to discourage and prevent rape.

vrome
vrome

@KhalilA.R.Kersey @vrome @marksinghy2k  As I stated earlier, HPV is prevented by vaccine, so why get tested for a disease you can't get if you have vaccinated, as recommended by the US CDC for all teens?


According to the CDC fact sheet on herpes, in the US, males contract herpes about half as much as women.  And most of the males with active herpes infections are  homosexuals.  And as I stated earlier, herpes is generally asymptomatic in people with normal immune systems, so why get tested for something that doesn't harm you and gives you no symptoms?