It's easier to buy a bottle of bourbon than to purchase a box of condoms at some drug and grocery stores in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Surveys of stores by teenage "secret shoppers" in Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties have found condoms locked in glass display cases and kept out-of-sight behind pharmacy counters.
Stores lock up all sorts of products that are "high-theft" items, so what's the big deal about condoms? Advocates for youths say keeping condoms under lock and key can deter teens who are sexually active from buying them and practicing safe sex.
The Valley has among the highest teen pregnancy rates in California, and any obstacle that comes between accessing condoms or other birth control they may need is detrimental, said Javier Guerrero, interim executive director at Fresno Barrios Unidos, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
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Buying condoms, lubricants and other family planning products can make even some adults blush, so consider the reaction of a teen having to flag an adult store clerk to unlock a condom display case, Guerrero said. "They may feel like they're doing something bad, but in reality they're just trying to make a healthy choice here."
And locking up condoms doesn't stop teens from being sexually active, Guerrero said. "So it's best to have access to the condoms and birth control."
According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, 30 percent of all high school students nationwide reported being sexually active in 2015. In California, the aggregated teen birth rate for 2013-15 was 19.7 per 1,000 live births. Birth rates in the Valley were much higher: Fresno County's birth rate was 32.6. In Tulare County, it was 40; Madera, 38.7; Kings had a rate of 34.3; and Kern County's rate was 39.
Social media is full of dismay and disgust by people across the country who have found condoms locked up. Clarissa Renteria, 20, of Woodlake, posted on Facebook recently about an experience that one of her friends had buying condoms at Walmart on East Noble Avenue in Visalia.
The condoms were locked inside a glass case, Renteria said. Her friend asked a store employee if he would open the case, but he didn't have the key and yelled across several aisles to another employee: "Do you have the keys to the condoms? Who has the keys to the condoms?"
After the employee found the keys and unlocked the case, he said loudly, "What do you want?" And when her friend replied quietly, "Magnums," the employee scolded her and told her to "speak up," Renteria said. After all that, she was told she had to retrieve the box of condoms at a cash register.
Renteria said she and her friend called to complain to the pharmacist, who was apologetic but said there had been recent activity of people stealing condoms. That may be so, Renteria said: "All we want is for their staff to be mindful of people's privacy. Maybe not yelling at each other of 'Who has the keys for the condoms?' is smart. I'm sure that they're working on it. We just hope that their staff could be better educated on this."
No consistent approach
Walmart does not have a corporate policy on securing condoms, said spokeswoman Tara Aston. "It's a store-by-store basis and it's actually based on we lock up items that are high-theft items and that's going to be different for each store," she said.
A quick survey on Sunday by a Bee reporter of stores in Clovis found the Walmart at Shaw and Peach avenues locked up condoms but Walmart at Herndon and Sunnyside did not.
The Walgreens at Shaw and Villa avenues had condoms on an open shelf. A block east at Shaw and Minnewawa avenues, CVS had condoms locked in a glass case, except for an almost-empty aisle display of small boxes.
And there was no consistency among supermarkets. At the intersection of Herndon and Fowler in Clovis, the Save Mart on the northeast corner had condoms on an open shelf, but the Vons at the southwest corner had them behind a locked glass case.
Teena Massingill, director of corporate public affairs and diversity of Albertsons, said a limited number of stores have moved condoms behind a sales counter or to a locked glass case because of a history of theft. Albertsons owns Vons supermarkets.
"Organized retail crime rings target condoms, razors and other high-value items, often wiping out entire shelves, leaving nothing for customers. Our goal is to ensure that these products are available to our customers," Massingill said.
Concerns about theft are a motivation for locking up condoms, but a study of the effect of theft on sales found the policy may not be profitable. The study, published in Pharmacy Practice in 2011, showed that after removing condoms from locked displays, more condoms were purchased than stolen from the pharmacies studied. The study involved eight grocery pharmacies in central Iowa who agreed to unlock their condom displays for three months.
Researchers said it was regrettable that condoms, which are designed to prevent unintended pregnancies and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, are locked behind glass.
It's unknown whether stores in lower income neighborhoods are more likely to lock up condoms, but it is something that Kelly Cleland at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University said would be of concern "particularly because lower-income people may also have other barriers to accessing health care and to have one more barrier in their neighborhood is a huge problem."
Teens can be limited in the choice of store to buy condoms because they may not have transportation, said Marissa Corpus, a health educator at Fresno Barrios Unidos.
Fresno Barrios Unidos in southeast Fresno and ACT for Women & Girls, a nonprofit social justice organization in Tulare County, have free condoms available to youths. They also try to educate store managers about how daunting it can be for teens to ask for condoms and emergency contraceptives from adults; and they encourage store managers to have the products on open shelves.
The nonprofit agencies have tracked accessibility and friendliness of pharmacy staff by dispatching teens as "secret shoppers" to buy condoms and the emergency contraceptive, Plan B.
Michelle Rivera, program coordinator at ACT, said stores receive a report-card grade from the organization. The surveys have had a positive effect, she said. "We have seen a large increase in accessibility."
But more progress is needed. The 2018 survey is still being conducted, and an ACT secret shopper has already found buying condoms to be a challenge. At the Save Mart in Hanford, condoms were behind the pharmacy counter when Genesis Gonzalez, 17, of Woodlake, tried to buy them. She expected the Plan B emergency contraceptive to be difficult to purchase, but expected condoms to be accessible. "I didn't think they would even deny condoms for a minor, because that doesn't make sense," she said.
The secret shopping experience in Hanford was discouraging, but she kept going to stores. Teens go two-by-two into the stores to conduct the survey, and Genesis said she needed a buddy. "If I didn't have the support I had, I probably would not have been motivated to keep going and ask for contraceptives anywhere else."
Save Mart public affairs manager Victoria Castro said it is not the company's policy to lock up condoms and the Hanford store now has moved them to open shelves. Store managers have discretion to operate their stores and in the case of the Hanford store, condoms were a high-theft item, she said.