Notwithstanding the cute pictures from yesterday’s post, Jim is now nearly seventeen years old. He’s taller than me, has a beard, and is much less interested in having his photo taken, so I don’t have any recent pictures. He also plays a mean bass guitar, and he’s in a band, which means — you guessed it — girls have started taking an interest in him.
Of course we’ve explained to him the basics of sex, including contraception and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, but we always wonder whether we’ve done enough. If you’re a parent (or a son or daughter) who’s had one of these conversations, you know how awkward they can be. Yet you probably also know they’re the Right Thing To Do, and so you do it. But will these talks make a difference? There are millions of unwanted pregnancies worldwide each year, and sexually transmitted diseases and infections are rampant. And as Jonah Lehrer points out, a recent study found that when they are sexually aroused, young men are much less likely to say they’ll engage in safe sexual practices than when they’re thinking about these things in a clinical setting.
So what about in the real world? Does simply knowing that condoms are a good thing promote actual use? Pepijn van Empelen and Gerjo Kok surveyed 399 Dutch high school students about their attitudes and sexual behavior. The teens were surveyed twice, three months apart, and paid 5 euros each for their time. They were asked whether they thought condoms were a good idea, whether they were planning to buy condoms in the future, and whether they actually did buy and carry condoms. And, of course, they were asked whether they actually had sex, with how many partners and how often they used condoms.
Since the average age of the respondents was just 15, most of them reported never having had sexual intercourse. But there was still a large group of 146 sexually active teens. Of these, only about 58 percent said they always used condoms.
As a parent, what I’m interested in is how to prevent my son from engaging in risky sex, and if he does have sex, how to ensure that he does use a condom every time. But sex is by its nature a spontaneous activity — we’re culturally conditioned to think that planning for sex is “unromantic,” and teenagers are no exception to this rule. Studies have found that they often have unplanned sex. If they don’t plan for it, how can we expect them to use protection when they do have sex?
Van Empelen and Kok’s study confirms the answer implicit in the question: Among sexually active teens, actual condom use bears no relationship to intention to use a condom or belief that using condoms is a good idea. The only factors in their study that correlate with using condoms are buying and carrying condoms.
The implication, if we want our children to avoid unsafe sex, is that condoms must be readily available for teens. The very practices that are most controversial in current-day sex-education debates are the ones most likely to succeed: Give away condoms or sell them in school. Parents may even want to consider buying condoms for their children. Of course we’d all prefer it if our kids simply waited until marriage, but this study suggests they won’t.
It’s important to note that this study only offers a correlation. We can’t say for certain based on this study that if the kids who don’t currently carry or buy condoms would actually use them if they were provided. But when you combine these results with those cited by Jonah in his post, a clearer picture emerges: if condoms aren’t available in the heat of the moment, many teens will succumb to their passions — even if they “know better.”
Pepijn Empelen, Gerjo Kok (2008). Action-specific Cognitions of Planned and Preparatory Behaviors of Condom Use among Dutch Adolescents Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37 (4), 626-640 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-007-9286-9