Palo Alto, Calif.: In the uproar about making the morning-after contraceptive known as Plan B available to our daughters, there has been no similar outcry about condoms and our sons. Anyone of any age can walk into a drugstore — as well as most grocery and big-box stores — and buy condoms. If you want to remain anonymous, you can pay cash; no ID is required. If you’re too embarrassed to face the checkout clerk, use the self-check aisle or, for $17.97, get a box of 100 — flavored or with “added sensations,” even — delivered to your door in a plain brown box.
President Obama has suggested that restrictions on making Plan B available to younger girls are justifiable because we can’t be confident that a younger girl in a drugstore “should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries … to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect.”
But a Center for Drug Evaluation and Research review found that Plan B is safe and effective even when used by adolescents without the supervision of adults, and also that adolescents understand it is not for routine use and doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted diseases. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who is a physician, concluded that “there is adequate and reasonable, well-supported, and science-based evidence that Plan B One-Step is safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of child-bearing potential.”
Like condoms, Plan B keeps a sperm and an egg from connecting. It does so by affecting ovulation and immobilizing sperm. A Government Accountability Office report concluded, and U.S. District Judge Edward Korman reiterated in his ruling removing the age limits on the sale of Plan B, that there is no evidence this type of morning-after pill can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.
The only reasonable objection to making Plan B available over-the-counter to anyone of any age is that, as parents, we want to know if our children are sexually active. But then why aren’t we questioning the easy ability to buy 100 condoms for less than the cost of movie tickets for a boy and his date?
The fact is that 40 years after the second wave of the women’s movement, we continue to accept a double standard many of us don’t even recognize as anything other than the way things have always been and therefore ought to be.
Tax dollars have been spent to provide condoms for American soldiers since 1931, and not only to married soldiers. But when we start talking about mandating health care that covers women’s contraception, the cry goes out that people who are morally opposed to birth control should not be required to pay for it. When anyone suggests that female soldiers as well as male soldiers should carry condoms to war — as in Britain three years ago — it’s headline news.
Teenage boys are expected to desire sex, and sexually active boys are often described as studs. We may not physically stone women in the U.S. for being sexually active before marriage, but sexually promiscuous girls are still verbally stoned as sluts. Is there a word for a promiscuous boy that compares with “slut”?
Maybe we should be doing more to urge boys as well as girls to be less sexually promiscuous, or maybe we should all be coming to terms with the fact that even “nice girls” have a natural biological desire for sex, just as even nice boys do. But if what we’re talking about here is whether we want to know if our children are having sex, then we need to add age limits for condom sales as well.
Any girl in a store aisle looking for Plan B has already crossed the boggy Rubicon of whether to have sex, whether her parents know about it or not. Many girls, faced with the choice of having to tell their parents they’ve had sex or taking their chances on getting pregnant, will take chances. But many, given the option to anonymously buy after-the-fact birth control, would choose the birth control.
Is our sexual double standard a reason to deny girls protection they might need against unwanted pregnancy?
Waite Clayton is the author of four novels, including The Wednesday Sisters. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.