Only 47 per cent of youth aged 13 to 18-years-old reported using condoms, with even greater vulnerabilities among girls and those using drugs and alcohol states findings from a study on sexual practices among Northern youth.
“It’s a problem that consistent condom use is poor across the board,” said Dr. Carmen Logie, an associate professor of social work at the University of Toronto.
Logie collaborated with Women’s College Research Institute and Northern educators Fostering Open eXpression Among Youth (FOXY) to gather data on social factors influencing youth and how they care for their sexual and reproductive health.
“What is alarming is that among sexually active boys only 52 per cent consistently use condoms and girls – 43.5 per cent. That’s not enough,” said Logie.
“It is not enough to protect from STIs. The rate of condom use is low for everybody. It just happens to be a little bit higher for boys who are gay and bisexual and lower for girls who are lesbian, bisexual, queer,” she said.
Studies on condom use in Canada that focus on youth frequently leave out children who are below the age of 15, creating gaps in information about what type of social interventions could improve their health outcomes, said Logie.
“We know kids are having sex earlier than 15,” she said. “People are going to not report that they are having sex because of stigma.”
Logie sais nearly 20 per cent of youth in Canada report being sexually active, but those numbers could be higher as a result of under-reporting. She added that the sheer numbers of sexually active youth make a case for sex positive education to disrupt harmful stigmas.
“We need to meet their needs and understand what they are. A part of that is reducing the stigma around sex and sexual and reproductive health, because that stigma often targets youth,” she said.
Alcohol, drug use part of the picture
Forty per cent of girls and close to 30 per cent of the boys in the study reported using drugs and alcohol in the last month, said Logie.
“Alcohol and substance abuse plays a role in harming people’s health,” she said, adding that girls were particularly susceptible to report not using condoms where drug and alcohol use are involved.
“Boys who were gay or bisexual were more likely to use condoms than heterosexual boys. Girls who are queer identified were less likely to use any kind of protection,” she said.
“There is a lot of stigma that young LGBTQ folks face,” she said.
LGBQ+ youth in Canada experience greater sexual health disparities because of “limited access to tailored sexual health information and resources,” the study states.
“For young people, condoms can protect from STIs and also protect from pregnancy between heterosexual relations. We have new biomedical advances (HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), but in the North it’s not accessible. Clearly, either we’re not empowering (youth) to access or use them,” she said.
Rural youth were less likely to use condoms and young people from ages 13 to 17 were more likely to access condoms in larger centres like Yellowknife.
Condoms should be offered for free and in different qualities and varieties to make youth feel like they have choice, said Logie.
Improving rates of condom use is urgent because STI prevalence in Northern Canada is seven times the national average at 3.9 cases per 1,000 people the study reported.
There is still a need to improve education about safe sex, condom use and mental health to encourage youth to have safer sex, said Candice Lys, co-author and FOXY coordinator.
“We still have a lot of work to do. It also speaks to a lot about the relationships between alcohol and being sexually active,” she said.
FOXY has taken up the mantle of better education that is tailored to sexually and gender diverse youth in the North, with a mind to safe partying and harm reduction.
The study used surveys completed with youth who took part in the school-based workshops.
“These findings show us things like the importance of gender differences. Young women who are sexually diverse have a lower likelihood of using condoms, whereas men who are sexually diverse are more likely,” she said.
FOXY conducted a pilot study in the fall that garnered information on what students know about STIs, safe sex, self advocacy and resilience before and after the FOXY workshops.
How much students know could vary depending on their school, but students in the pilot study showed increased knowledge about these categories.
“The curriculum taught depends strongly on individual teachers and individual schools. It’s hard to say what it would look like in every school in the North,” said Lys. “Whether or not it actually gets taught and who teaches it and whether or not students feel comfortable learning from particular teachers has a greater effect on whether or not the information is internalized,” she said.