For some teens, it's easier to buy safe-sex advice than condoms

October 27, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Thirteen-year-old Mary was overwhelmed.

"I feel so sick, so scared," she said, darting a helpless glance at her two friends. "What am I supposed to say, 'I'll have a Snickers and a condom?' "

Fear seemed to paralyze the three eighth-graders as they lingered in a gas station mini-mart across the street from Stephen M. White Middle School in suburban Carson near Los Angeles.

They stared at each other and the condoms behind the counter. A male cashier in his 30s loomed as an impenetrable barrier between them and the contraceptive display.

Michelle stayed, offering Mary support and advice: "Just do it really fast. Really, really fast."

Despite continuous publicity about teen-age pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, the purchase of contraceptives contin

ues to confound many teen-agers.

Yes, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that a majority of U.S. high school students have sex. But embarrassment, nervousness and fear deter an estimated one out of four sexually active teens from using an effective birth control method. Mary, Joyce and Michelle were so embarrassed -- and scared -- that they did not want their real names used.

"A lot of teens don't bother with contraception," said Robin Hatziyannis, a representative of the Center for Population Options in Washington, a group that studies adolescent behavior and attitudes about sex. "Some kids are getting the safe-sex message, but a lot aren't."

Every year, more than 1 million American teen-age girls become pregnant; 2.5 million teen-agers contract a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV. A recent congressional study found a 62 percent increase in AIDS cases among Americans ages 13 to 24 during a two-year period, climbing from 5,524 in 1989 to 8,949 in 1991.

Although Mary has never been sexually active, she said fear of pregnancy and disease compelled her to buy a condom "just in case. I go to a lot of parties and, these days, boys just can't be trusted. You can go to a party, not plan to have sex, but do it anyway. I know people that's happened to."

Many teen-age girls echo Mary's worry that they will find themselves about to have sex without protection. And they frequently find that the responsibility for birth control is theirs.

"Historically, women have always worried more about birth control than men, since pregnancy is more of a burning issue for women," Hatziyannis said. "Today, HIV has changed that somewhat, but women still tend to bear more of the responsibility."

Seventeen-year-old Mitsy said she overcame embarrassment and bought condoms last February in case she and her then-boyfriend decided to have sex. "I wasn't sure where our relationship was heading or whether we'd have sex, but I wanted to be prepared," she said. "Buying a condom was a scary thing to do."

Frequently, boys assume that their partners will take care of birth control. Sergio, 16, who has been sexually active for five years with six girls, said he certainly assumed it.

"I was young then, and I didn't know much about sex, so how could I know about protection?" asked the senior at Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles. "And I wasn't the one who could get pregnant, either."

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