Why Younger People Aren't Using Protection
While the famous public service announcement “No Glove, No Love” was considered to be one of the most effective campaigns to get guys to wear a rubber when it was introduced in the mid-1980s, life has changed in recent years when it comes to condom compliance.
A recent survey conducted by sexual wellness brand Skyn found that 27 percent of people reported never using a condom; and non-college grads were less likely than other groups to use condoms, with half noting they do so infrequently.
One reason for the reluctance to wear rubbers might just be that young people under the age of 35 are having less sex, as sexual activity in that age group has dropped precipitously since 2000, according to a 2020 study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
There are also a lot of competing forces, including easy access to porn, that are pushing sex IRL to the back burner—and without sex, the need for a condom goes out the window.
“Digital media, including streaming channels, social media and electronic games, are all competing for attention,” said Shirin Peters, M.D., founder of Bethany Medical Clinic in New York City. “This means that sex is just not top of mind, and it’s not as interesting as it has been for prior generations.”
Low condom usage can also be linked directly to conservative and non-medically accurate sex education, argued Carol Queen, PhD, who is a staff sexologist at Good Vibrations and a sex toy retailer in San Francisco.
“This kind of education tends to either elide safer sex information by promoting the incorrect belief that condoms don’t work or it favors an abstinence model,” she said. “Abstinence is only a useful strategy if a person is, in fact, abstinent.”
Within the gay population, the prevalence of HIV-preventing medications such as Truvada and Descovy has made condoms almost “taboo,” said Marc Mazauksas, a gay man who lives in New York City. “People can be put off with the idea of someone saying they only ‘play safe’ versus having unprotected sex because they’re on PrEP, a pill that prevents HIV infection,” he said. “There also tends to be a stigma that condoms can ruin pleasure, which ultimately means we’re not putting our health first.”
This strong association between condoms and HIV prevention versus all the ways they can work to prevent STIs has also led to decline in this form of protection, Queen said.
“It’s become all too easy for people to feel more secure about HIV and forget to think about all the other STIs that could impact someone’s life,” she said. “We need to keep reminding people why it’s so important to use them.”
And for women, contraceptive innovation is also taking the place of condoms.
“IUDs, contraceptive patches and injections are widely accessible and these are great options for many women,” Peters said. “When women choose one of these long-term contraceptive options, they often choose to prevent STIs by choosing monogamous relationships and getting STI testing with a potential partner before engaging in sexual activity.”
However, condom use might pick up a bit once the pandemic is over and life returns to normal, said Mallory McPherson-Wehan, co-founder of Generation Three Girls, which runs a weekly wellness podcast and offers group-based peer counseling. “My purely anecdotal take is that young people are using condoms less because they are having sex less during COVID-19,” she said. “My single friends aren’t going out to bars or clubs or even going on many dates right now.”
Whatever the reasoning, young, unmarried people still tend to have a higher number of new sexual partners each year than other groups—which means condom usage is more important to them.
“We all know that condoms protect against unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission, which are both bigger risks and concerns for this demographic than others,” Peters said.
It’s time to remind the youth to put that knowledge into practice.