SACRAMENTO, Calif.—No more of those awkward moments, placing a box of condoms on the checkout stand, staring at the ground and hoping the cashier doesn’t look too closely at what you’re buying.
And therefore, public health officials hope, no more unprotected sex among teens—or at least less of it.
Sacramento County, Calif., teens can now order free condoms by mail, through a California Department of Public Health program that aims to cut soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases among the young.
Statewide, the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are among people ages 15 to 24, especially young women. These two diseases are the leading causes of preventable infertility in California, especially among women just entering their reproductive years, the department reports.
Working with the nonprofit California Family Health Council, the state decided to start the mail-order program in counties with the highest incidence of youth STDs—and Sacramento is among them.
More than four of every 100 Sacramento County women between ages 15 and 24 were diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea in 2010, according to state data. That gives the county the highest rate of gonorrhea infection in the state, and the second-highest rate for chlamydia.
“It’s really alarming that young people, particularly young women, are so impacted by these STDs,” said Amy Moy, the council’s vice president of public affairs.
The other counties included are Alameda, San Joaquin, Kern and parts of San Francisco.
A $250,000 grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding the program, which organizers expect to last about 18 months.
Youths 12 to 19—old enough under California law to consent to medical care for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of STDs—can now order condoms from TeenSource.org, the health council’s sex-education website. They receive 10 condoms, lubricant and a brochure on safe sex, all in a nondescript envelope, and they can reorder up to once a month.
Statewide, the health council will send organizations that serve youth shipments of free condoms to be distributed to teens who request them. TeenSource.org maps these locations.
Since the program launched on Valentine’s Day, the website has received more than 500 mail orders, with more than 80 coming from the city of Sacramento. Organizers did not yet have a count for Sacramento County.
Although condoms are widely available at pharmacies, Moy said teens often feel too embarrassed to buy them or can’t afford them. Condoms can cost about $2 each for a small box. Buying larger quantities—which teens may not be able to afford—can bring the price down to about $1 each.
The Capitol Resource Institute, a faith-based political action group in Sacramento, called the condom program “an attack on parental rights” and urged its constituents to complain to their state legislators.
“Sexual activity affects teenagers’ physical and emotional health and should therefore involve parents on such an important matter,” the organization said in an email alert to its subscribers.
Teens don’t need their parents’ consent to order condoms via the new program.
Moy said the free condoms should be just one part of the statewide strategy to curb teen STDs.
The health council encourages parents to talk with their children about sex, and gives tips at the website Talkwithyourkids.org.
“The California Family Health Council agrees that abstinence is the most effective way to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancy,” Moy said. “But we know many teens are engaging in sexual activity, so we want help them be as safe as possible.”