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Condoms won't keep our teens safe.

THE AD SHOWS A VIBRANT YOUNG woman at the beach, arm in arm with a handsome man, and the small disclaimer to the left of the photo reads that the product may cause all sorts of damage to onself and one's offspring. Do you believe for a moment that this cigarette ad seeks to discourage smoking among adolescents?

Cigarette ads can easily be compared to condom ads. The silent message for teens is that such products are available to the sophisticated and that if you're not using them, somehow you're just not "with it." If we truly wanted to discourage an activity, be it drinking, smoking, or adolescent sexual activity, the last thing in the world we would do is advertise where and how to procure the means for this activity. As a physician, I must agree with the church that condom ads will have the effect of encouraging premature sexuality in subtle ways, and will ultimately do more harm than good in terms of disease prevention through boosting the numbers of sexually active youth.

Let me tell you about one of my patients who gave a story I'm only too familiar with. I do not know if she used condoms, but given their failure rate, the point is moot. She was the same age as my own daughter, and she sat on the edge of her chair in my office crying angry tears. Her pelvic pain, caused by a germ called Chlamydia trachomatis, was sexually transmitted and is a common cause of female sterility. I gave her the standard advice: her boyfriend needed to be treated, and it would be better not to have sex until he was treated. If she had to, use a condom.

She looked me in the eyes with a sneer. I had just told her, indirectly, that her only sexual partner had betrayed her, that she may never be able to have children, and that he wouldn't suffer at all from this episode and probably didn't even know he was infected. Now I was suggesting she risk her future a second time with a flimsy condom? Did I think she was foolish enough to ever look at that guy again, much less have sex with him?

The party line on condoms is that they are the mainstay in our defense against sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS. Condoms should therefore be made available in all places where persons who may be inclined to be sexually active are to be found. Based on the theory that teens are at highest risk for a little hanky-panky when things get dull and can't be expected to have the savoir faire or the cash to go to the local pharmacy, many school systems make condoms available at school, courtesy of the local taxpayers. In some cases, teens who don't accept condoms feel they may be ridiculed for not getting a piece of the action, so they take condoms whether or not they intend to use them.

What is the message here--that sexual activity outside of marriage is not only socially acceptable but also expected of the normal teenager? If authority figures determine that adolescents must have condom availability, the corollary must be that teens should be having intercourse. Our surgeon general has stated in an interview that our society is too Victorian, that sexual activity, apparently regardless of marital status, is a normal pleasure, but that "babies shouldn't be having babies."

How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory beliefs? Condoms with the backup of taxpayerfunded abortions? Then we can have our cake and eat it, too. Unfortunately the surgeon general hasn't taken care of patients for a long time, so she doesn't see what I as a clinician see: the guilt and heartbreak of a long-ago abortion still poisoning one's life, and the horror of a diagnosis of AIDS gotten from one's first-ever sexual partner who "seemed so wonderful."

Supporters of the promotion of condom use would have Americans believe that sex is recreation, not an integral part of the sacred bond of marriage. Just as when one is playing football one wears a mouthpiece and helmet, so one wears a condom for the sport of intercourse.

LET'S TAKE A LOOK AT HOW SAFE CONDOMES actually are. Several studies have looked at the physical properties of semen, lubricants, and condoms; the motivation of teenagers, adults, and those using substances such as alcohol and cocaine that impair judgment; and people's ability to put a condom on correctly, use it at the right time, and take it off properly. In one study done with heterosexual couples, one partner was AIDS-virus positive and one was negative at the beginning of the study. These couples were using condoms consistently, yet close to 2 percent transferred the virus to the uninfected partner. Fifteen percent of similar couples who did not always use condoms correctly transferred the virus to the uninfected partner over the course of several years.

Now let's generalize these statistics to the more than 25 million teens who would so blithely be protected with condoms. Assume that less than 50 percent are sexually active, say 10 million for the sake of making the math easier. If all these teens had only one teen partner and used condoms all the time and properly, 100,000 would transfer the AIDS virus from a theoretically infected to an uninfected partner. Of course most teens are not infected with the AIDS virus. However, AIDS is not the only problem condoms are touted as preventing.

Another problem that all sexually active heterosexual couples are exposed to is an unexpected pregnancy. The failure rate for condoms is at least 10 percent.

And then we have venereal diseases. Detected venereal diseases number in the millions each year, 33,000 each day in the U.S. alone. The germs that cause venereal diseases are smaller than spermatozoa, so the failure rate of condoms in preventing these is even higher. Many venereal diseases are not even detected, especially in males, who may transmit them to several female partners (and vice versa, of course, but less commonly).

What's so bad about venereal diseases? Won't a shot of penicillin kill these bugs? Unfortunately, often not. Some destroy the female organs, making childbearing impossible, and all the unfortunate woman may feel is some pelvic discomfort--maybe not enough to make her seek medical care until she finds she is unable to conceive. Other venereal diseases are associated with cancer, like the infamous human papillomavirus (HPV), which also causes genital warts. And condoms don't usually prevent HPV transmission. Add to that the fact that some gonorrhea strains, which cause pelvic inflammatory disease and sterility, are becoming resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics.

Back to the condoms themselves. First off, 4 out of every 1,000 manufactured condoms are permitted by the FDA to have water leaks. Now the waterleak test will allow detection of holes in the condom of 5 microns. Five microns is 48 times bigger than the AIDS virus and 119 times bigger than the hepatitis B virus, another sexually transmitted germ. It's also considerably bigger than the chlamydia and gonorrhea germs, which makes one suspect that when the surgeon general espouses sex with condoms, what she is really trying to prevent is pregnancy.

Another test on condoms done by the Mariposa Foundation found that 18 out of 70 popular brands of condoms leaked the AIDS virus. And the FDA found that about 10 percent of production lots of U.S. condoms did not meet FDA standards.

MANY PEOPLE FEEL THAT IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO stop kids from having sex, even if we wanted to. My reply is that society itself has failed to give our teens appropriate reinforcement for chaste behavior. In fact, it does the exact opposite--just watch one episode of "Melrose Place."

Back in 1950, unmarried teens had babies at a rate of 59.2 per 1,000. Remember, abortions were more difficult to get and, hence, less frequent in those days. In 1989, the number of live births to teens was 347.9 per 1,000, close to a sixfold increase over 40 years. Add to this the fact that more than 40 percent of pregnant teens abort their babies these days and that birth control is more available and effective than four decades ago, and you have only two explanations for the inferred changes in sexual behavior: either teen hormone production has increased drastically, or society no longer holds teens and others to certain standards of behavior that in this day and age could be lifesaving.

What should schools, parents, and society be teaching kids about sex? From my perspective, responsibility needs to be stressed. There's nothing wrong in teaching the physiology of sex, but the humanity of the fetus needs to be stressed as well. The young must be told that sex means something different to boys than it does to girls. They need to understand that when it comes to having a long-lasting marriage, compatibility in the bedroom is far less important than compatibility across the kitchen table, that it is not their right to have sex when and where they feel like it any more than it is their right to drive an auto without a license.

Most of all, we must media-proof our children. They must be taught to steel their minds against the incessant messages of TV, magazines, and radio that sex is inevitable and desirable for adolescents. Somewhere we must come up with the courage to see the beauty and desirability of chastity as being a virtue of the strong. Now how can we possibly get this message across at the same time we peddle those thin rubber balloons we call condoms?

As a physician and a mother, it is apparent to me that my generation has failed the next generation miserably, and in some cases, I fear, fatally. Society needs to reclaim itself by guiding our teens and young adults to espouse the proper use of sex as a God-given gift intended to bind couples in marriage through mutual spiritual communication and pleasure for their benefit and that of their offspring.

And besides, there are a whole lot of leaky condoms out there!


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.
1. Sex education should be taught to children
 primarily by:
 87% parents.
 2% the church.
 6% schools.
 5% other
2. Adults today are failing children because
 they don't have the courage to teach them
 sexual morality.
 83% agree
 8% disagree
 9% other
3. Educating children about birth control and
 making condoms available is not contradic-
 tory to my morals.
 24% agree
 71% disagree
 5% other
4. Educating our children about birth control
 does not mean that we are saying extra-
 marital sex is okay.
 64% agree
 28% disagree
 8% other
5. Most teens are unaware that they are risking
 their lives for the sake of sex.
 86% agree
 10% disagree
 4% other
6. Teens should be taught to remain sexually
 96% agree
 2% disagree
 2% other
7. Distributing condoms at school pressures
 teenagers to become sexually active.
 79% agree
 13% disagree
 8% other
8. I was aware of the high failure rate of
 condoms in preventing venereal diseases.
 71% agree
 26% disagree
 3% other
9. I think condoms should be available upon
 request through school clinics.
 16% agree
 81% disagree
 3% other
10. If I knew my teen was sexually active, I
 76% lecture him/her about the implications
 of sex and strongly insist on abstinence.
 10% lecture him/her about the implications
 of sex and encourage birth control.
 2% lecture him/her about the implications
 of sex and offer to buy birth control.
 12% other
11. The media encourage teen sex.
 95% agree
 3% disagree
 2% other
12. Most teens don't have an appreciation of the
 sanctity of life.
 67% agree
 27% disagree
 6% other
13. Encouraging chastity in today's teens is
 5% agree
 93% disagree
 2% other
14. Along with Dr. Katherine Dowling, I agree
 that promoting condom use is not the way to
 keep our teens safe.
 91% agree
 2% disagree
 7% other

The best way to prevent "babies from having babies" is:

A multifaceted approach: teaching abstinence, safe sex, and skills for refusing sex. Emphasize that sexual relationships at young ages--14 and 15--rob teens of growing-up space and learning interpersonal-relation skills. Lay out explicitly the risks of venereal diseases and pregnancies.

Patty O'Neill Fort Collins, Colo.

Provide quality education to economically deprived people. Invest our time and money in improving the quality of life of the poor so that sex and having children are not the only pleasures available.

Name withheld Studio City, Calif.

Children should be taught morals and values from a very early age. Exposure to sex should be limited. Discussions and examples of morals and values have to be ongoing in everyday opportunities. There should be an open line of communication in which the children can openly discuss things they have heard or have seen.

Nancy Ulaszek Lombard, Ill.

This is a rather mechanistic way of looking at things. Children won't want to have babies if they are loved by their parents and being taught to love and serve others, to look to a future where they can contribute to society and their families.

Name withheld Gaithersburg, Me.

Education and discipline in their homes.

Name withheld Gary, Ind.

To instill and insist on strong moral values. Get young people involved in activities, sports, music, art, and friendships where they will have fun and be with people.

Margaret Leonard Worcester, Mass.

Begin teaching sex education at an earlier age, about 8 or 9. Most sex education isn't taught until children have reached ages 12 and 13. By then some kids are already sexually active.

Name withheld Chickasha, Okla.

Either treat them as adults and tell them what is right and wrong, or don't trust them and keep them in glass bubbles until we think they are of age.

Margo Mahoney Ann Arbor, Mich.

Frank discussions with adequate and correct information between parents and children.

Name withheld Atlanta, Ga.

We need to create a positive peer pressure that says it's okay not to have sex until you are married. Schools need to develop programs that allow kids to commit themselves to waiting.

Father Jerry Herda Greendale, Wis.

Care about your children. Know where they are at all times. Set curfews. Show love to them so that they can have healthy and safe and good moral attitudes about themselves and other people.

Mary Meinholz Middleton, Wis.

Stress the responsibility of a pregnancy and how a pregnancy will change their young lives forever.

Robert Kelly Bridgeport, Conn.

Require young people to work voluntarily in hospitals with babies or require them to listen to crisis-counseling calls. While in service, our children learn for themselves that children demand abiding commitments.

Debbie Stollery New Orleans, La.

Teach them at home and at school how valuable it is to know and respect themselves and to realize the importance of strength and virtue. Help them realize that one doesn't have to be a "geek" to be a virgin.

Joseph DeChant Chesapeake, Va.

What I would tell a teen about sex and using condoms is:

Don't throw away one of the most meaningful and gratifying gifts of human life; don't risk acquiring serious physical damage; and don't expose yourself (particularly as a woman) to emotional torture and to the loss of the wonderful experience of sexual encounter within marriage.

Sister Donata Daml Eagle Butte, S.D.

Sex is sacred and was intended by God to be used in marriage only for the propagation of the human race and to sanctify the love of husband and wife. It is not a form of recreation. It must be kept under control. The use of condoms only tries to avoid responsibility for doing something that is wrong in the first place.

Dorothy Thomas Minot, N.D.

Don't count on them to protect you from disease and pregnancy. Don't play Russian roulette with your whole life and future ahead of you. If you want to die young or end your childhood abruptly, then have sex. Enjoy your teen years and be safe--don't have sex.

Father Stephen Rudolphi Carmi, Ill.

Sex is meant for people who are married to each other. There it enhances a loving, trusting, holy relationship, and when it results in pregnancies, the parents are there for those children.

Name withheld Jefferson, Iowa

Provide straightforward, factual data and encourage them to discuss their ideas, concerns, and feelings. I don't think just teaching them is the answer. We need to help them learn how to make moral decisions.

Name withheld Chicago, Ill.

Delayed gratification is part of the real world. The mature person understands that we must grow into the attainment of what is precious.

Sister Mary Julius Milwaukee, Wis.

It's a good way to ruin your life and spiritual values. It will diminish your love of God and all his goodness.

Tony Wortmann Stanton, Nebr.

Sex outside of marriage destroys: it divides teens from parents and other family members; it destroys trust; it is a negative force in teen relationships. Using a condom does not mask or protect teens from the psychological effects.

Mary Hahn New Canaan, Conn.

Be absolutely sure--you don't have to do it just because "everyone else is."

Karen Siciliano Chicago, Ill.

Teen pregnancy is more common today because:

We have lost the awe and wonder of God's presence in our lives. Self-control, self-respect, and a healthy fear of the Lord is never out of place.

Elizabeth Gavula Philadelphia, Pa.

The media publish the joys of parenthood--more babies, more welfare benefits. There is not enough education in schools about the responsibility of rearing a child.

Name withheld Elm Grove, Wis.

Low morality in families and parents not taking the time to educate their children.

Roland Amelotte North Berwick, Me.

It is socially acceptable today to behave in any manner that results in pleasure. We have created a generation of kids who believe that pleasure is their right and that moral standards are at best unfair and at worst a violation of their civil rights.

Name withheld North Haven, Conn.

There is not a firm commitment to any form of religion; parents are complacent and allow the schools to shove whatever they want down their children's throats. We the public have allowed the television to tell us whatever it wants to, and we believe it.

Katie Hrdina Downers Grove, Ill.

If the teen does not have a good relationship with his or her parents, he or she is more likely to seek love and comfort through having sex with another.

Name withheld Fallston, Md.

We have broken down respect for the body in play objects such as Barbie dolls; we have not allowed children to be children in many areas--we have forced them to grow up too soon; we have not helped them to learn social skills; and we have not encouraged and shown our children the meaning of prayer as a relationship with God.

Sister Lois A. Meyer Lafayette, Ind.

One-parent families and not enough good examples from adults.

Name withheld New Bedford, Me.

It is now acceptable to keep the child and depend on grandparents to raise a second family. This has become the norm.

Name withheld Saint Joseph, Mich.

General Comments

I thought Dowling's article really hit the nail on the head. Her last three paragraphs should be reprinted and made available to all parents, teens, and teachers.

Rosemary Voglewede Carrington, N.D.

Providing adequate jobs, stopping the flow of drugs, and encouraging better education will give young people better self-esteem and will allow them to make better choices.

Name withheld San Antonio, Tex.

The Catholic Church is at fault for being too extreme on the other side. They should be more understanding.

Amber Holmes Cullman, Ala.

I volunteer loving care to infants with AIDS. I wish teenagers could see the suffering of those precious infants, suffering that could have been prevented by true love and restraint.

Name withheld Elizabeth, N.J.

Adults must set examples of chastity for our youth. To send the kids out of the room during "Melrose Place" so that we adults can watch it speaks volumes to our youth. The youth of today are not the root of the problem; rather, we adults who promote and accept lax morals in the name of individual rights and tolerance are the problem.

Name withheld Greenwood, Mo.

As a mother of six children ranging from 21 years old to 41 years old, I think Dowling is right, but about 30 years too late.

Wilma Wydeven Kimberly, Wis.

I agree with Dowling that we must help our teens to understand the responsibility and proper use of our human sexuality. However, focusing our energy on stopping condom distribution is not the way. Rather, take a positive approach to promoting chastity. Be proactive and protest media messages. Discuss--don't lecture--values, choices, and consequences. Offer to provide information and support to teens, parents, teachers, and anyone who will listen.

Teri DeLaFleur Alexandria, Va.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Claretian Publications
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Article Details
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Author:Dowling, Katherine
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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