Written by Elizabeth, RSEI Educator | Published October 27th, 2021
Many schools and organizations we partner with express concern about the impact of condom demonstrations on their youth. They’re worried about whether or not condom demos are developmentally appropriate, especially in middle school, if they will encourage young people to have sex, and if parents or community members will be upset. So, for this month’s blog, we decided to break down these concerns one by one.
Are they developmentally appropriate?
The truth is, condom demonstrations ARE developmentally appropriate for both middle and high-school-aged youth. Both the National Sex Education Standards and the SIECUS Guidelines highlight the importance of young people understanding how to use condoms in middle and high school.
Young people need information about how to use condoms correctly BEFORE they begin having sex, so they can make informed decisions about protection and use it the right way when the time comes. And, we know from experiential learning theory that people learn best when they experience something – this means actually seeing a condom demonstration or, even better, practicing condom demos themselves.
So, when are kids having sex anyway? Data is very limited on the sexual activity of middle school youth, but the data we do have suggests that, on average, less than 2% of middle school students report that they had sex before age 11. That number increases slightly when we survey high school youth, where about 3% of high schools students report that they had sex before age 13.
Will they encourage youth to have sex sooner?
Okay, so we know from the data that most young people wait until they’re a bit older to have sex. Will providing condom demonstrations make them more likely to want to try sex out sooner?
Again, there isn’t much data aimed at addressing this specific question. However, many middle and high school comprehensive sex education curricula feature condom demonstrations, and data shows that comprehensive sex education delays sexual initiation (the age at which a person first has sex).
Furthermore, several studies have been conducted about the impact of condom availability in schools on rates of sex among young people. That research shows that rates of sexual activity among adolescents in schools with condom availability programs were no higher than those in schools without such programs. If giving condoms to young people doesn’t make them more likely to have sex, why would demonstration of proper condom use?
Many folks see a middle ground here – why not talk through the steps for correct condom use, instead of demonstrating them? And we can see why that feels like a happy medium. After all, the National Standards for Sex Education say that, by the end of 8th grade, students should be able to: “Describe the steps to using barrier methods correctly (e.g., external and internal condoms, dental dams) SH.8.SM.1.” It’s not until the end of 10th grade that the NSES say students should be able to demonstrate those same steps.
But, consider this analogy: I know nothing about changing the oil in my car. If a mechanic talked through the steps, I might be able to recall some of them, but probably not all of them and definitely not in order. If that same mechanic demonstrated how to change the oil, my recollection of steps in the correct order would likely improve. Now, if I changed the oil with or alongside a mechanic, I’m much more likely to be able to do it myself again, should the need arise.
Likewise, the more exposure middle and high school students have to condoms before they have sex, the more likely they are to use them correctly when the time comes.
How will families and caregivers react?
The last big concern we hear is about the potential reaction of families and the community. Surveys conducted at local, state, and national levels frequently show strong community and parental support for comprehensive sex education. Back in 2004, NPR, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released results of a national survey on sex education. You can check out all of the data here, but at that time 40% of respondents felt that the topic of how to put on a condom was appropriate in both middle and high school. While not as specific in terms of the questions asked, a 2018 report from SIECUS found 89% of respondents believe it is important to have sex education in middle school and 98% believe it is important to have sex education in high school. The SIECUS reports also demonstrate that family and community support for comprehensive sex education has been steady over the last 20 years.
Getting family & caregiver buy-in is critical to providing high-quality sex education – after all, they are the people who will be there throughout a young person’s life to help guide them through big decisions. At RSEI, we encourage our partners to host information sessions for this exact reason. Give families and caregivers the opportunity to meet the educator, to get a sense of what their child(ren) will be learning, how, and why. We often learn at these sessions that folks are eager for their kids to have sex education. Many express feeling unqualified, uncomfortable, and/or unprepared to navigate these conversations, and they’re eager for any resources and support we can provide to help them get prepared. It’s our job as sex educators to help support families and caregivers as they help their young person navigate life.
So if the question is, “Should we provide condom demonstrations?” You can expect the answer from RSEI to be a resounding “YES we should!”