For a teenager wanting to buy condoms, it can seem like a very long walk from the pharmacy in the back of the store to the cashier. Then there's the nerve-wracking wait in line, hoping no one notices the box in your hand.
If that sounds like too much stress, California health officials are offering some teens the option of getting free condoms in the mail.
The Condom Access Project launched on Valentine's Day during National Condom Week. Its goal is to help combat the high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among teenagers and young adults.
The program has two parts. One is a condom access map so that teens ages 12 to 19 can go online, enter their ZIP code and find out where they can pick up condoms for free.
But in five counties with the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the state, another option is condoms by mail. Teens living in San Joaquin, Sacramento, Kern and Alameda counties and part of San Francisco County can sign up to receive condoms in the mail up to once a month.
If they enter their name and address at www.teensource.org, they'll receive a discreet envelope with 10 condoms, lubricant and a brochure on STD prevention.
Teenagers know the benefits of using condoms and other birth control, but there are barriers that prevent access, said Amy Moy, vice president of public affairs for the nonprofit California Family Health Council. It can be embarrassing to walk into a drugstore and buy condoms. This project breaks down those barriers and reaches kids where they live.
"In one week, we've had more than 500 orders. It's really exceeded our expectations. We're seeing that there is a need for and incredible interest in this project," said Moy.
The CFHC and the California Department of Public Health's STD Control Branch partnered to run the project. A $250,000 grant from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention will keep the project afloat for about 18 months, said Moy.
Sexually transmitted disease rates are high in San Joaquin County. There were 1,827 reported cases of chlamydia among females aged 15 to 24 in 2009.
Although teen pregnancy rates in the state have declined steadily over the past decade, STD rates among California's youths ages 15 to 19 have increased. Teens and young adults have the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia of all age groups in California, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the leading causes of preventable infertility in California, affecting all women, but particularly women who are just entering their reproductive years.
The goal of CAP is to undercut those statistics.
Teens at Tokay High School were surprised to hear about the service.
"That's resourceful," said Micheal, 16, who declined to give his last name. He doesn't always use condoms, he said, but he would use them more often if they were free.
Several boys, who would not give their names, admitted to stealing condoms from drugstores to avoid the expense and embarrassment.
Some students worried about sending condoms right to their homes.
"I think it's weird. Why would you send kids free condoms? Parents will still know when they get the mail," said Morgan Ellis, 17.
Others were pleased someone was addressing the high rates of teen STDs.
"Not too many people are that open about it. I think it's good. Maybe people will be less careless," said Carrisa Callahan, 17.
Not everyone is cheering for CAP. Marc Haley, program director at the One-Eighty Teen Center, calls it an unwise and unhealthy decision to offer free condoms to teens, saying it promotes promiscuity.
"Aside from any religious point of view, sex is meant for adults. There's a responsibility behind it (teens) are not ready for. (CAP) gives them the freedom and assurance that they're protected when they really aren't. Not 100 percent," said Haley.
Moy doesn't want to encourage underage sex. She does want to promote healthy choices.
"For teens that are going to be sexually active, we want them to be as safe as possible," she said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.