In Wharton, Texas, cheerleaders at the local high school were benched during the homecoming game after they passed out condoms in goodie bags traditionally made for members of the football team. The high school maintains that their actions violated the school’s code of conduct, and that its punishment of one day of in-school suspension and a ban on performance during the homecoming game was appropriate. Others feel differently, and the case raises some important questions about teen sexuality, sexual education and safer sex in high school environments.
Sexual activity in high school students is not uncommon: most are reaching an age where they’re sexually curious, beginning to branch out on their own and developing relationships with each other. This can include sexuality, which is one reason why reproductive health advocates strongly believe that comprehensive sexual education before high school is critical, to ensure that students are armed with the information they need to make responsible choices when they reach adolescence — those choices can include abstinence, the use of birth control, condoms and other options.
Furthermore, studies indicate that making condoms available in high school settings radically reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancies and STIs, one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended providing condoms in schools. Boston schools are well ahead of the AAP, with a policy put in place this summer to offer condoms and counseling to high school students who request them. Condoms in high school environments may not please all parents, but they radically reduce risks.
In that context, providing condoms in spirit bags is actually quite a sensible decision — making condoms available to students makes them safer, and homecoming games in particular are notorious for unexpected sexual liaisons. One might argue that the cheerleaders were looking out for the safety of their prized football players by reminding them to don safer sex gear before hitting the playing field, so to speak, but evidently the school didn’t feel that way. Sadly, neither did the cheerleaders, who say they were just playing a joke, not looking out for safety or trying to make a statement about safer sex.
Were they joking, though, or were they expressing deeper anxieties around teen sexuality?
Texas, among many other states, provides only patchy access to reproductive health education and comprehensive sexual education can be very difficult for students to find. Consequently, a great deal of mystery, shame and ignorance surrounds sexuality; in that landscape, while students may superficially understand what condoms are for, they may also be objects of nervous laughter, rather than simple tools to make sex safer.
With the fifth highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, Texas clearly has a lot of work to do when it comes to educating teens about safer sex. The state also clearly needs to work on pulling back the curtains when it comes to basic issues, like the safe and appropriate use of condoms. It’s perhaps not surprising that a cheerleading squad would think that adding condoms to spirit bags is a funny joke in that context, but it’s also troubling. Texas teens have an extremely low rate of condom use, and clearly have a conflicted relationship with sexuality.
While this may have been intended as a prank, it could open a larger discussion about sexual education and teen sexuality in Texas. Condoms aren’t inherently hilarious, evil or dangerous, although they might seem that way to students who haven’t been provided with unbiased, helpful, accurate information about sexuality, STIs and pregnancy. Rather than punishing students for passing out condoms, the school might have better applied its resources to providing condoms and counseling of its own, instead of demonizing a simple safer sex device.
Photo credit: DeusXFlorida.