A high school student went to a pharmacy to buy condoms but was turned away due to his age.
A student who wanted to buy condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases was embarrassed in the store.
Another student could not afford contraceptives and became pregnant.
The teens shared these stories with Ria Barbaria and Fiona Lu, California high school students who are co-directors of policy for GENup, a youth-led social justice organization.
“No one was really talking about making condoms easily accessible,” Barbaria said. “Young people are being discriminated against, they are being harassed, they are being shamed for getting contraceptives when it is only a necessity for their health.”
To address this, State Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-Panorama City) recently introduced legislation that would require California public high schools to provide free condoms to students beginning in the 2023-24 academic year. The bill would also cover the cost of human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccines for children under 18 years of age.
“We are targeting a demographic where we can be preventative, where we can intervene at an impactful moment so that once they are adults we don’t have to fight to respond,” Menjivar said.
Senate Bill 541, cosponsored by GENup, aims to reduce pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, particularly in underserved rural areas. Schools will be required to post a prominent notice of products available on campus with additional contact information for these services.
Young people, and especially young people of color, have been disproportionately affected by the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases in California, Menjivar said. Data shows that people ages 15 to 24 account for more than half of these cases in the state. About 52% of sexually active youth use condoms, and testing rates for sexually transmitted diseases have declined among people ages 13-24. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lu, who attends Northwood High School in Irvine, said his district does not provide free condoms. At his academically competitive school, sex is stigmatized and rarely discussed, she said.
“But obviously the students are still having sex,” Lu said. “Not raising awareness about healthy sexual habits leaves students with the idea that they have no one to talk to about it. They can’t get resources, or are even embarrassed to ask or get it themselves at the store.”
This bill will also prohibit retailers from refusing to sell non-prescription contraceptives to minors.
In California, children age 12 and older can receive confidential reproductive health care, including prevention and treatment of pregnancy, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases. But teens still face barriers when trying to access these services.
“Sometimes the condoms are behind the counter and they (wrongly) ask for ID, or someone might say, ‘No, you’re too young.’ But that won’t stop teens from having sex,” Menjivar said. “That will only prevent them from having safe sex.”
Condom availability programs in schools and sex education became more common in the 1990s. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in 1992 was first in Los Angeles County to hand out condoms to students on campus. The Long Beach and San Francisco school districts developed similar programs.
“By providing condoms, we’re not promoting anything other than self-advocacy and awareness,” said Erin De Tura, a school nurse in the Santa Monica-Malibu district. “When we create these networks of trust and communication, students can come to us with needs much greater than a condom.”
In 2019, Los Angeles County and Planned Parenthood opened 50 high school sexual health and wellness centers to provide care to adolescents in underserved communities. The clinics, funded through at least 2024, provide students with birth control pills and condoms, and tests and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases.
Greg Burt, director of the California Family Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group, opposes SB 541 and said the state’s public schools have long taught students about condoms in sex education, but “it’s been a complete failure.”
“It should be obvious that more condoms are not the solution. The only sure way to reduce STI rates is to change students’ sexual activity and the number of sexual partners they have. We need to stop assuming that hormonal teens can’t control themselves.”
Studies show that distributing condoms in schools does not increase sexual activity among adolescents, but contraceptive use is increasing. According to CDC data, about 20% of California high school students were sexually active in 2019, with 47% of them reporting that they did not use condoms the last time they had sex.
Condoms will be fully covered for women under Medi-Cal and most health insurance starting in 2024 under legislation passed last year. But uninsured teens and men won’t be spared the full cost, Menjivar said.
“This bill will close the gaps in areas that are most disproportionately affected by health disparities, areas where the nearest health clinic is 50 miles away,” he said. “We are making it easy by being a one stop shop for getting access to contraceptives at your school.”
SB 541 would also expand health services under Medi-Cal to cover HPV immunization for children 18 and younger.
HPV vaccination rates have fallen across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 80% of adolescents receiving only the first of three doses. According to the CDC, the virus causes more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers and about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers.
“Given the high rates of HPV cancer, I want to make sure that everyone, at any age, is available to get that vaccine,” Menjivar said.