As an organizer with the Pittsburgh chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), I often receive swag and supplies from some of the organizations we partner with. Recently, Planned Parenthood physicians gave our group several bags of condoms to pass out at events we host. After the meeting, I put them in my trunk to save for our next event and then promptly forgot about them.
I was reminded of their presence, however, when one of my teenagers opened the trunk to load his sports equipment for a game and asked me why there were hundreds of condoms spread around. Apparently, they had spilled out of the bags.
I told him that they belonged to SWOP, but that they were really just for anyone who needed them — the subtext, of course, being that this included him when he was ready. While I didn’t intend on having a conversation with him about safer sex practices at that moment, a truck full of condoms served to prompt one.
After this conversation, where he was more open to asking questions than I expected him to be, I started to think about the ways that the simple presence of condoms invited conversations about safer sex practices that might otherwise be difficult to initiate. In other words, their mere presence served as a symbol of my own commitment to sexual health, and my absence of the shame about sex, which would prevent my kids from asking me the questions that they need answers to.
I remember being a teenager who had only recently started having sex and feeling like there were so many barriers to condom access, as well as access to other forms of birth control. Going to a clinic required transportation and knowledge of how to navigate medical care, which I hadn’t had to do without parent assistance in any other context. Buying condoms at the pharmacy when I had little access to money was a challenge. I distinctly remember one time when my boyfriend and I walked into a CVS with all of the change we could scrounge up and stood there embarrassed as the clerk counted out several dollars of quarters, dimes, and nickels. And broaching the topic of my sexual health needs with my parents, not knowing how they would respond seemed terrifying.
Now, as a parent of teenagers, I think back to this time and recognize that these barriers to access certainly didn’t discourage me from having sex, it just made it harder to do it safely. And, the fact that my parents didn’t have this conversation or facilitate access only made me reticent to turn to them when I had issues related to my sexual health.
Since my overflow of condoms got the attention of my own kids, it struck me that having them accessible to adolescents can serve as an important symbol of both taking their autonomy and sexuality seriously, but also an openness to being able to help them navigate the challenges that come with sexuality. I’ve decided to put some in a jar for anyone who needs them.