Among Youth during COVID-19
After reading a recent article by Peggy Orenstein in the NY Times (April 2021) I was struck with the overwhelming similarity of asking the public at large to wear a mask to protect against COVID and asking youth to wear a condom for STI prevention. As an educator working with young people - it got me thinking…..What is the difference between protecting our family, neighbors and communities by wearing a mask and adhering to compliance to slay COVID-19, the worst pandemic in 100 years (if we don’t count HIV/AIDS), and the continued resistance to have states, the federal government, health systems, and schools teach about the use of condoms to protect against STIs and unwanted pregnancies?
Isn’t it all public health and prevention and keeping ourselves and loved ones safe?
Mask wearing has been life saving and relatively non-controversial in most areas of the country. We know it works and we easily and readily donned masks to protect our fellow citizens. We stayed at home, did not see our friends and family, we crossed the street, or stepped off the sidewalk to avoid coming in contact with people. We closed down schools and places of worship and stopped going to concerts. We did all of this because science showed us that mask wearing and avoiding large crowds worked to stop the spread of this deadly disease!
We also know that wearing a condom works! Condoms are the only method of contraception, except abstinence, that protects against both STIs and pregnancy. They are offered free or at low-cost at most clinics, including many high schools - yet their presence and use continues to be an issue when it shouldn’t be.
What is the connection between masks and condoms that we need to promote? PREVENTION. Prevention works, but if we look at why are young people so willing to wear masks, but not consistently use a condom (or insist on one) - where is the disconnect in our public health messaging? In the Orenstein article an Associate Professor at Tulane University discusses the results of interviews with hundreds of students about their sexual behavior during the pandemic. She wanted to know if ‘young adults are grasping the connections between the questions they ask to avoid Covid and those they ought to be asking to protect their sexual health?’ They did not - and consistently did not wear protection when sexually active. Yet these same students rarely left the house without a mask. Education around masks has worked - the American public has gotten the message and our public health leaders are consistent and thorough in their messaging about mask wearing and vaccines to stop the spread of COVID.
What we also know is that evidence based comprehensive sexuality education works. We know that most people, when presented with scientifically accurate information are good at understanding the science, use protection and pregnancy and STI rates start to decline.
Comprehensive sex education includes information on healthy relationships (family, friendships), bodily autonomy, respect and love. As students mature, a comprehensive curriculum includes information about anatomy, reproduction, disease prevention, contraception and affirmative consent. Disiscussion of relationships, masturbation, oral sex, gender identity, same-sex encounters and pleasure, offers young people information to fully understand their earliest sexual encounters with all of the information they need to build these healthy relationships. Studies show that youth who receive comprehensive education report feeling happier with their first experiences and do so later, have fewer partners and are safer when they become sexually active. Sadly, sex education in the United States continues to be terribly inadequate. In the U.S. only 39 states mandate some form of sex education, and only 18 require that comprehensive sex education be medically accurate.
After a year of wearing masks, why not try something creative and continue to leverage that public health message of PREVENTION? It could be a wonderful opportunity to continue to urge our young people to protect themselves, only the message would be to wear a condom! If they can practice good public health by wearing a mask, let's encourage them to continue to be practitioners of good public health by wearing a condom! Prevention is always good public health.
Listen here for teens discussing their experiences with the COVID-19 vaccine from the School Based Health Alliance.