Safe sex focus of new California bill would put free condoms in public schools

More than a million California students could get access to condoms at school — no questions asked.

Under a bill introduced this year, young people in California won't need to ask permission to grab a condom out of a dispenser at school.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows about 20% of California high school students were sexually active in 2019, but nearly half of students said they didn't use condoms the last time they had sex, the bill says.

"I would call it a no-brainer," said Paula Tavrow, an adolescent reproductive health expert and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

All available research shows making condoms accessible in schools increases condom use, Tavrow said. At the same time, data shows the measures do not cause students to have more sex, more sexual partners or start having sex at a younger age, she said.

The law would also prohibit retail establishments from refusing to sell condoms to customers based on their age.

“By requiring free condoms in all California high schools, we are empowering the youth who decide to become sexually active to protect themselves and their partners from STIs, while also removing barriers that potentially shame them and lead to unsafe sex," said state senator Caroline Menjivar, who introduced the bill.

Having free condoms in schools is one of the most effective ways to get the contraception into the hands of people who need it, advocates say.

Making condoms available elsewhere is less effective than having them in schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. One survey found teenage girls in Washington, D.C. were met with resistance or "condemnation" from store clerks 40% of the times they asked to purchase condoms, the ACLU says.

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More condoms would prevent STIs

Placing condoms in designated locations on public high school campuses will allow students to take their sexual health into their own hands and protect themselves from sexual transmitted infections (STIs), state legislators say.

Data from California shows over half of sexually transmitted infections in the state are among young people age 15 to 24, the bill says, and that youth of color are overrepresented among cases of some STIs, like chlamydia.

Research from other parts of the country has shown condom programs in schools lead to a sharp decreases in STIs, Tavrow said.

In Massachusetts, researchers found male students at high schools with condom programs saw nearly a 50% drop in rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia. At the same time, male students in a nearby city without school condom programs saw a 23% spike in rates of infection.

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Condoms have been available in US schools for decades

School condom programs aren't new — they've been around since the early 1990s in high schools, according to the CDC. By 1995, the programs were in more than 50 school districts across 21 states, the CDC says.

Some of the county's biggest school condom programs are:

Condoms 'logical' extension of California sexual education

California's Healthy Youth Act requires public schools, including charter schools, to teach students about how to have sex in ways that prevent pregnancy and avoid spreading STIs. The state's law was also designed to be inclusive of different sexualities.

Making condoms available to students who want them is the "logical extension" of sex education already happening throughout California, said Tavrow.

"The advantage of a bill of this kind is it's not only students in certain school districts or more liberal areas who would have access to condoms," Tavrow said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With free condoms in schools, California wants to help teach safe sex