Harm Reduction 101—Options

Harm reduction is the philosophy of service that respects an individual’s choices, is nonjudgmental, and provides options that can help them lead healthier lives. While not as controversial as it once was, harm reduction programs often offer condoms to teenagers (or to anyone who is having sex) to reduce their risk of STIs including HIV/AIDS, and needle exchange programs for drug users.

But harm reduction goes much further than that.

This sign (via Laura Agustin) is a great example of harm reduction. It means that you have three choices to prevent HIV: abstinence, limiting partners, or using condoms. Of course, most harm reductionist in HIV circles would give you lots more options. While I can’t go into them all here, the would include female condoms, lubricant, oral sex, and lots of other things.

The biggest criticism of harm reduction has been that access to options around sex and drugs makes them seem acceptable or more accessible. Folks will say, “If we offer condoms, teens will think we condone sex, and they’ll have more of it!”

I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe some teens will have sex if condoms are available. I believe the risk of HIV is much higher, though. Teens are having sex (really? That’s not news to you, is it?). If they all use condoms, they will all be safer. And there would be fewer unwanted pregnancies. Is that worth the risk of one individual deciding to have sex because condoms are available? Personally, I think it is.

And condoms shouldn’t be the only option. Hey, kids: you have three options. Abstain, have one partner only, or use condoms, consistently and correctly.

I sat with a group of pastors a couple of years ago, talking about HIV prevention in their communities. One pastor put a big bowl of condoms on a table in the vestibule each week. And each week, it was empty following their services. Wouldn’t it be great if all the churches did that?


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