Sex Education #2: Condoms

Hand holding a condom isolated on whiteDifficulties with sex education

It’s hard to imagine the power of bad information from the home or the street until you experience it.  All too often we teachers, trying to present a lesson in as clear, believable and understandable a fashion as we can, wind up seeing our best efforts swept away by some student’s belief that has no bearing on reality or science.  Sex Education often shows how much bad information is floating around out there.

I always start early in any discussion of reproductive biology by making sure I am on safe ground.  I frequently would ask, “Am I telling you to have sex?”  To which I’d expect a resounding, “NO” from the class.  Then I’d ask, “Am I giving you permission to have sex?”  To which, I’d also be expecting a “No.”

Permission to have sex?

At this point, some clever student might ask, “Would you give us permission to have sex?”  To their surprise I answer, “Yes.  Under the following condition: You bring me a note from your mother telling me she gives you permission to have sex, then you’ll get permission from me!”  After the hooting, hollering and laughter dies down, I make my case.  “Since you probably won’t wait for a note from your mother and you’ll probably just give yourself permission – I can’t stop you there – it would be wise to know how to best protect yourself and your partner during sex.  And that means using your lucky condom.”

That all seems very straight ahead but I found out differently with a group of seventh graders.  I was substitute teaching in the late 1980s when I got sent to a middle school health class.  The teacher left me detailed instructions.  We were to read an article in Time magazine about the (then) recently discovered mechanism of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.  After reading the article, students were to answer a set of questions which had been left by the teacher.  The teacher had obtained permission slips.

Remember, it’s okay to teach about war, hatred and killing whenever you see fit but you need permission to teach about love or sex.

But these were seventh graders!

Have you ever researched the mechanism of HIV?  You’ll encounter terms like: reverse transcription; antiretroviral; RNA; DNA; condoms and more.  Yet these kids hadn’t even had beginning biology.  So the article was lost on them and might as well have been written in ancient Greek.

I figured the teacher’s heart was in the right place (wanting to prevent the spread of a deadly disease) but he/she showed a bit of overconfidence in  the students’ ability to grasp the article.  So I concentrated on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease or to prevent the production of unplanned babies.

This was during the era of experimentation with HIV treatments.  My wife and I had watched in horror as, over the course of months, our good friend Aramis died a slow death from AIDS.  Also, I had seen far too many cases of unplanned pregnancies tearing families apart for me to be complacent about family planning.  So I was very passionately motivated to teach these children the safety benefits of condom use.

Learn about condoms!

I told them to learn about condoms BEFORE they needed to use them.  Find where you can get them (free clinics, some schools and some pharmacies).  I told them to play with the condoms.   Blow it up like a ballon; fill it with water; you girls, practice putting it on a banana; you boys, practice on yourselves!  I told them about water based lube.  I harangued them to not wait until that magic moment of love before knowing how to open a condom package (in the dark).  I answered any reasonable question asked of me.  I went on like that for about 40 minutes constantly getting student feedback and checking for understanding while continually repeating that condoms are your friend and condoms provide protection.

Then, as the period was about to end, I said, “Here’s your unofficial homework.  Get a condom, take it out of the package and just hold it in your hand.”  Then a girl shouted out, “Eeew!  Gross!”

I asked, “Why is that gross?  It seemed like you understood what I’ve been talking about.  Why would you put something into your body that you wouldn’t hold in your hand?”

To which she replied, “But condoms cause cancer!”  Then the bell rang and class was over, giving her the last word on the subject.

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