01/31/2012 04:07 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

"You Are Worth Keeping Safe": Condoms, Teenagers and the Media

The recent news that the adult entertainment industry in Los Angeles is now requiring actors to use condoms is definitely a step in the right direction. Not only will this protect the actors themselves from the potential transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, but it will also serve to help teach the next generation about the importance of safe sex.

Research shows (and common sense suggests) that many young people watch porn; it is so easily available on the Internet these days that it's not surprising that they explore sexuality through that medium. Also, of course, sex education varies tremendously from school to school (and from country to country) and many adults feel uncomfortable broaching such sensitive topics with children, which means that we don't know what sort of information young people are actually getting about sex.

Hence, we can look to the media to see whether children are being shown safe sex. It's rare to see a sex scene in a TV show or a film, whether that film is for adults or the general public, where the characters interrupt their passionate snogging in order to discuss the vital topic of protection. Perhaps it's simply not seen as romantic. And, as already mentioned, condoms haven't been required in porn before, so that's been out of the question, too.

Maybe things are better in literature for young adults. While I do not think that literature needs to be educational or should take the place of sex ed courses, it does seem to me that it could reflect reality. And the reality is that there are sexually transmitted diseases out there and that males and females, no matter what their sexual orientation or sexual practices, can be exposed to those infections and diseases.

If you think about a "classic" in the field of young adult literature, Judy Blume's Forever, the primary concern there in regard to protection is not getting pregnant. The main character, Katherine, goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic and asks for the pill. No condoms needed.

But Blume's book is nearly three decades old, so we can't fault it, really. A more recent book, Melvin Burgess' novel Doing It, has main character Dino tell Jackie that he has contraceptives, but unfortunately that doesn't quite tempt her into, well, doing it with him (p. 30). Still, at least he tried.

Burgess, who is known for his stark writing about sex, in much the same way that Blume once was, also includes protection in his novel Junk. There, fourteen-year-old Gemma sleeps with Tar. Even though they've run away from home and are soon to become junkies, Gemma still thinks about safe sex and insists that Tar gets a condom (pp. 94-5).

Gemma's good intentions soon fade away, however, as the novel moves ever deeper into drug addiction (incorporating prostitution along the way); teenage pregnancy later on suggests that condom usage has been forgotten. In other words, this book shows the clear consequences of not using protection (and also of drug usage, but that's a different matter).

But Burgess is something of a lone voice in the world of straight young adult fiction. Many other books include sex scenes without even a brief mention of any sort of protection or contraception.

So I wondered if gay young adult fiction might be better. Since gay men are at a higher risk of STDs, including HIV/AIDS, I hoped that books featuring young gay men would portray safe sex.

Happily, the topic is indeed starting to become more common in texts featuring gay male teenagers. For example, in Robin Reardon's Thinking Straight, the main character's friend gives him condoms and lube and also an old Die Hard VHS cover for storing them in (p. 79) which is as good a use as any for that film.

In A Secret Edge, also by Robin Reardon, the protagonist's aunt is a nurse. She leaves him condoms and a note saying, "Just in case. Besides, won't it feel kind of cool just having them?" (p. 94) She also tells him, "This isn't just a health issue. It has to do with your own self-respect. You are worth keeping safe. Your life is worth every bit as much as anyone else's and a lot more than a few minutes of pleasure." (p. 111)

Rainbow Boys, Rainbow High and Rainbow Road form a trilogy of gay male YA texts by Alex Sanchez that feature the same characters. In Rainbow Boys, Nelson, one of the main characters, has a one-night-stand in which he does not use protection. During the sex scene, he knows he ought to but he can't quite bring himself to ask for a condom. Later, he worries that he might have gotten HIV and his mother and his best friend chastise him. In Rainbow High, Nelson then goes to get tested for the disease.

While these story lines and scenes might strike us as rather didactic, it is still positive in that the clear implication is that if a gay male is to have sex, he ought to use protection.

What about gay females, then? Unfortunately, the news here isn't so good.

In YA literature that features teenage lesbians, as far as I am aware, there is not a single mention of girls using dental dams or anything else. This is the case even if they are sleeping with females who have previously slept with males or if they themselves have previously slept with males. While it is rare for women to pass on STDs to other women through sexual activity, it is certainly not impossible, although these books give that impression.

In Lili Wilkinson's Pink, the main character, Ava, has a girlfriend, but now wants a boyfriend. She says:

"I wanted a boyfriend. I did. I wanted to be normal and go to the school formal and wear a dress and for him to wear a tux and give me a corsage. But I hadn't actually considered that I would kiss a boy, let alone have sex with one. I mean, Chloe and I had done plenty of... stuff, but it seemed different with a boy. Dangerous. Fooling around with boys led to scary things like STDs and babies." (p. 33)

This quote seems to suggest that being gay is not "normal" and that to be normal Ava has to have a boyfriend. But it also implies that it is not possible to get STDs from lesbian sex. Both of these messages are erroneous.

This is the only text that I have found that has a teenage lesbian (or possibly a teenage bisexual girl) seem to consider the need for protection, but she does so only in the context of having sex with a boy.
It may be that authors, editors, or publishers are unaware that gay females might also need protection. Or maybe it is the case that protection for gay young women it is not considered to be relevant or appropriate as a topic in literature.

In sum, then, young adult literature -- which is where adolescents might get some of their ideas about sex -- is not quite there in terms of safe sex. It's doing fairly well in regard to gay males and Melvin Burgess is pretty much singlehandedly raising awareness of safe sex for straight teens. What this means is that gay females are basically ignored when it comes to protection and also that young adult fiction in general could be doing a much better job.

Perhaps these new laws about using condoms in porn will have an effect. If teens see condoms being employed in hard-core sex scenes, maybe they will begin to realise just how important safe sex is. And hopefully other forms of media -- other films, TV shows, and literature --- will soon start emphasising the employment of protection, as well.

If so, I suspect this could have a huge impact on STD rates (and rates of teenage pregnancy) for the next generation. Teenagers are, after all, "worth keeping safe."