Credit: Marie’Sa Rumsey / EdSource
Student Health Center at Sonoma State University.

Although California is a safe haven state for sexual and reproductive health care, teens statewide have long experienced being denied contraceptives, including condoms, due to bias based on their age or racial background. As sexually transmitted infection rates continue to rise, our state has a critical responsibility to expand teen access to potentially lifesaving care and resources, including free condoms and the HPV vaccine.

According to data recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, rates of infections of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are rising, and in 2021, half (50.5%) of reported cases were among adolescents and young adults aged 15–24 years. The CDC recommends condom use as an essential tool that can effectively support overall health and well-being, reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.

Young people make up more than 5 out of every 10 chlamydia cases in California, and more than 87% are youth of color. Sexually transmitted infections don’t often show symptoms, but when left undetected they can lead to serious health problems like increased risk of contracting HIV, infertility, cancer and blindness. California spends about $1 billion annually on health costs associated with sexually transmitted infections.

That’s why we are calling for collective and collaborative action among California youth and elected leaders to address health inequities experienced by teens and young adults statewide. While progress has been made in advancing policies that help teens access a wide range of birth control options, the rise in sexually transmitted infections among California youth represents a crisis that has gone ignored for far too long.

Senate Bill 541 — the Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act — seeks to address this epidemic by expanding teen access to free internal and external condoms at school. It would also prohibit pharmacies and retailers from asking people for their ID when trying to purchase condoms, a practice that many of the young people  we work with have told us resulted in harassment, intimidation and discrimination when they attempted to own their health and support safe practices. SB 541 would expand access to the HPV vaccine, which prevents infections that can eventually lead to cancer, through the Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (PACT) program, which provides free services like contraception and sexually transmitted infection care to eligible patients with low-incomes. Family PACT providers would be able to administer the HPV vaccine for people ages 12-18, assuring there is no “wrong door” for those seeking this prevention measure.

According to a survey conducted through Essential Access Health’s TeenSource program, over half of the survey participants said they do not have condoms in their schools. Yet, 75% of youth who participated in focus groups about barriers to sexual and reproductive health access believe it is very important to have condoms in schools, and 25% believe it is important. Based on this input from teens across the state, we are partnering to bring this issue straight to the California Legislature with SB 541.

Young people have always mobilized on issues important to them, whether that be climate change, education or mental health. This is no different. We need youth-informed and youth-led policy that empowers adolescent health and safety.

It’s also important to be clear that extensive evidence shows that having condoms available in schools doesn’t mean more teens will engage in sexual activity. Research has shown that making condoms readily available results in increased condom use among teens who are already sexually active.

Providing free condoms in schools is a bold idea, but it isn’t new. Certain school districts in California, including those in Los Angeles County and San Francisco, have had free condoms in their schools since the 1990s. In 2021, Vermont became the first state to require all public high schools to make condoms free to students.

Teens shouldn’t have to make tradeoffs between their health and other essentials that they may have to pay for out-of-pocket or with family support — including school supplies and other personal hygiene products. As a state with a track record of being an unwavering advocate for sexual and reproductive health, we must empower youth who choose to become sexually active to develop safe habits, protecting themselves and their partners.

We can no longer afford to risk the health, safety and future of our youth. The state has a responsibility to relieve the STI burden and ensure that no matter where someone lives or goes to school, teens in California can access the sexual and reproductive health resources they need to support their health without shame or consequence.


Caroline Menjivar was elected in 2022 to serve California Senate District 20, representing Burbank and the San Fernando Valley. Ria Babaria is a senior at Riverside STEM High School and the co-chief of policy and legislative director at Generation Up (GENup), a California-based, student-led education advocacy organization.

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