The Condom Campaign

This piece appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to get a copy and become a member of the Ms. community!


“It started at home, ” Alba Alvarado Sandoval told Ms. about her two-year campaign to bring safer-sex resources to her high school in San Rafael, California.

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At 9, she became an aunt when her teenage brother’s girlfriend had a child; as she got older, she saw more and more people in her community face teen pregnancy. “I was tired of watching opportunities get taken away from young men and women. I was tired of watching adults ignore this issue that’s in front of them. I was just tired of being ignored.”

Sandoval spent her last two years of high school fighting the silence around safe sex that was putting her peers at risk. She handed out condoms from her backpack, launched a school club and engaged parents, students, faculty and staff in a fight to bring condoms to campus. When the school board finally gave the green light for the installation of condom machines, the National Coalition of STD Directors and Trojan stepped in to bring 10,000 condoms to her campus. (Recently, the organizations donated an additional 10,000 in tandem with a partnership with the Ms. Blog.)

The first batch of condoms was gone within an hour. But more than providing free condoms, the machines—and the posters about condom use and safe sex hanging behind them—shifted culture and behavior at Sandoval’s school. Conversations about sex among her peers were now based on facts instead of inaccuracies. Obtaining and using condoms, a topic that used to be avoided, became commonplace.

This is the impact of information and access. And for young people, this kind of safer-sex revolution can’t wait. Although Sandoval was working to reduce teen pregnancy in her community, her work was fighting another pressing crisis at the same time: a spike in STI/STDs nationwide.

Following a three-year decrease, chlamydia rates increased 5.9 percent from 2014 to 2015; after a historic low for cases of gonorrhea in 2009, infections in 2015 rose by 12.8 percent. And although in the U.S. people between the ages of 15 and 24 are 27 percent of sexually active individuals, each year they make up half of the 20 million new STI/STD infections.

This sexual health climate is even harder to navigate for women like Sandoval. Women are at a unique biological risk for infection, are less likely to experience symptoms and therefore seek treatment, and face more dangerous consequences for an STI/STD—including cervical cancer, infertility and pregnancy complications. Young women are also seeing a larger increase in some STI/STDs, and for people of color the numbers are even worse.

Increasing condom access and contraceptive awareness is an important starting point for reversing the rise of STI/STDs. Only 7.2 percent of high schools make condoms available to students, and proper use of condoms is only taught at about a third of high schools, according to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS).

But even Sandoval, once known as “a human condom machine,” knows that alone won’t stem the problem. Comprehensive sex ed is essential. The 2014 SHPPS found that close to 70 percent of schools offered no STI/STDs or HIV prevention information either on or off-campus— and that between 2000 and 2014, the number of middle and high schools offering prevention services decreased by over 10 percent.

“I don’t think we can have access without education or education without access,” Sandoval says. “You can’t just have one without the other.”

Far too often, young people have neither.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., Managing Editor of Argot Magazine, Feminism Editor at Autostraddle and a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, MEL, Mic, BITCH, and Feministing. She stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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    Comments

    1. I love this! Spreading condom awareness and the need for the use of the condom is so important and ultimately effective, this could prevent and unwanted pregnancy and the risk of catching an STI/STD. Great idea! I am proud of this venture.

    2. Eliana Szwarc says:

      Sandoval is a very brave student. The reason why many do not want to speak about sex is because it is a very common used taboo. As the years go by common sex is becoming more accepted but still not talked about. Parents do not want to talk about it with their children because they are afraid that they will start having sex –which isn’t necessarily true- yet some parents lack the fact that their children are already having sexual intercourse. Sandoval gave children from her school the chance to speak about it with someone or at least have the ability to get condoms without parent involvement –even though involving a parent is always advised. Having access to condoms is extremely important not just for teen pregnancy but for STD/STI as well, the statistics of STD that is provided in the article is larger than I expected especially middle and high school students. STD’s are likely to happen within this generation and the ones to come, the more informed people are about them the safe people will become. Even if children do not want to speak to a parent about sex they should at least have access to the information or to talk about it with someone. Many teenagers struggle from the fear, the shame or disappointment that they will receive from their parents. Especially in a religious household or traditional ways of families. Sexual education should be given to teenagers by schools to inform them about the possibilities for STD’s, pregnancy and to verify the misinformation that many people have. When I was in high school, sex ed. was very helpful not just to inform me about sex but also to inform me about the misinformation many people had to my surprise. For example, in one lecture the teacher was talking about pregnancy and she specified that if there is any intercourse without some type of contraception pregnancy is 100% possible even if the girl is on top. I was not shocked at all because my parents have spoken to me about sex before and they explained it to me, I was shocked from the amount of confused and shocked faces I saw. Sandoval as I mentioned before is a very brave student, she is breaking barriers and educating many people and hopefully will continue to do so.

    3. Stephanie Rodriguez says:

      I have to say that I love this article, “The Condom Campaign”, Alba Alvarado did a great job in starting a campaign to have save sex. When you are young, you don’t think about the consequences that sexual relationships can bring. Condoms are very important, because you are not only protecting yourself from pregnancy, but from getting diseases only transmitted during sexual intercourse. Not many Parent’s talk to their children about ways to protect themselves when being in a relationship, because they don’t feel right about it. I feel that every school should offer STI/ STDs or HIV prevention information either on or off-campus. Every student should be well educated about sexual intercourse.
      Alba you did a great job, not a lot of people would have the courage to bring condoms to school, and to talk to other teenagers about safe sex. I find it amazing how after her campaign the school agreed to have a condom machine. It is also amazing how Trojan also stepped in to bring 10,000 condoms to her campus. Some teenagers don’t understand how getting pregnant changed there whole life upside down. Kids are a blessing but when you have them at the right time, when you are ready economically. I also became an aunt in an early age, when I was six years old, and honestly he my “nephew” became my best friend. Thank God my Brother was a great father even though he was young and raised his kid right. Not everyone is as fortunate as he my brother was.
      Many poor countries lack access to birth controls, which is very unfortunate. STDs is a very common disease that keeps rising throughout the years. We need to start now and teach the young teenagers about safe sex and sexual intercourse prevention. As said here in this article only 7.2 percent of high school make condoms available to students. We need to raise our voices and make it possible for this campaign to keep growing. We need more schools to agree to give out condoms to a better future of society.

    4. Audley Ridley says:

      It is great to see that sex education is being taught to children during their high school years. I believe that kids are a lot more sexually active now, and do not have the proper education or means to stay safe. Coming from a private Christian school, we were not taught sex education, we were only taught to wait until marriage. This was a disaster when a few teens from my class ended up pregnant, and many with various diseases. It is crazy to see that the ages between 15 and 24 are responsible for half of the STI/STD 20 million infections each year and this is a wonderful way to help prevent that. I have only witnessed colleges providing free condoms for students, but when kids are starting to be sexually active now at 14, it is great to see something being done in the high schools. At such a young age, pregnancy can have a high health risk for these young girls. It also can lead to unsafe abortions, and pregnancy related deaths.
      In the United states we are more privileged than others, we have planned parenthood (which now under Trump is planned on being defunded), and more access to these contraceptives (even though it is still not enough). Other countries are not as fortunate as us. Every minute a woman dies due to a pregnancy related issue. Another big chunk of deaths is related to sexually transmitted diseases. When only 7.2 percent of high schools have condoms available in the United states, that is an issue, if we can bring that number to even 50% of schools, I believe that those rates will drop immensely. As Sandoval said, “I don’t think we can have access without education or education without access”. At least every public school needs to have access to contraceptives in some way or form or the problem will continue to grow.

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