Can’t We Just Talk?
I’ve spent most of my adult life talking about sex. For a time, I even made a career of it. While those days are behind me, the impulse to teach is ever-present. As National Condom Day approaches on February 14, I want to tell you a thing or two, in praise of prophylactics.
For the purposes of review, I am referring to the stretchy tube-like sheath worn on a penis or placed inside an individual’s vaginal canal or anus to protect them from the spread of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. When used as directed, they also reduce the risk of pregnancy. They come in diverse forms, from basic, run-of-the-mill, to ones with bells and whistles. Some are flavored, for oral pursuits. There’s even a variety of sizes for a custom fit to one’s body—and ego.
My first interaction with a condom was in a freshman year, high school health class. Of course, I had heard about them, but this was my first time up-close-and-personal. It included a ripe banana and lube-less, bright orange rubber. The teacher, who thrived in sports settings, was the complete opposite in a classroom. It was as if putting any energy toward teaching would rob him of his soul. His demonstration was mechanical, he didn’t make eye contact, and couldn’t be bothered with answering questions. The atmosphere in the room was heavy and weird and it haunted me for years. I retained very little from this experience.
Years later, as a sex educator, I was committed to creating inclusive experiences for the young people in my classes. I was committed to direct, honest discourse. I spoke plainly about anatomy and using clinical terms and allowing space for giggles and jokes.
With prevention messaging, I was even more deliberate. I was sex-positive, and never downplayed the importance of contraception. I used evidence-based information to discuss available methods which prevented the spread of STIs and HIV. I also peppered the lessons with historical nuggets. For example, while condoms had been around for centuries, the first rubber-based version wasn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. Over the course of the twentieth century, they further evolved, with latex being introduced in the 1920s, and polyurethane many years after.
Messaging around condom-use increased substantially with the AIDS epidemic but was often counterproductive as advertising wasn’t inclusive of all the groups impacted by the disease. Despite this, the World Health Organization has estimated that since 1990, 117 million new HIV infections were prevented because of condoms.
By the early 2000s, condoms were more accessible. You could find them in pharmacies, grocery stores, and gas stations. You could get a free supply from local public health clinics. As a freshman at the University of Delaware, I was amazed that anyone could get a brown paper bag full of condoms, which the nurses at Student Health called the “Friday Night Special."
This accessibility didn’t always translate into other schools, as I saw first-hand when I started teaching. Administrators were vocal in their hesitation to allow outside professionals to come into their schools to talk about sexual health and prevention. They would often conflate reproductive health education with us teaching young people how to have sex. One principal even joked that we were probably using the Kama Sutra as our textbook. I failed to see the humor.
These days, condom talk and reproductive health discussions are more commonplace. Local organizations like AIDS Delaware, the Delaware HIV Consortium, and CAMP Rehoboth hand out thousands of condoms every year. In addition, these organizations, along with Planned Parenthood of Delaware and the Alliance for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, provide education for individuals across the lifespan.
Though the messaging around condoms hasn’t changed much, sharing it remains mission-critical: Don’t double up or reuse them. Use a water-based lubrication. Don’t keep condoms in wallets, or back pockets. Gently press the wrapper to feel for air pockets. Once the external variety is placed on a penis, make sure the tip is pinched. Never flush them down a toilet.
I think back on that day in health class with gratitude, as it taught me—by way of poor example—how I could effectively speak about reproductive health. This skill translates nicely in life—after all, if you can talk about sex in public without breaking a sweat, you can talk about almost anything.
I hope this will prompt you to heap praise on the prophylactic. You may even be more inclined to share a prevention message with someone. On this National Condom Day, and all the other 364 days that surround it, I think that’s as powerful as the mighty condom itself. ▼
Christopher Moore is Interim Executive Director of AIDS Delaware. He loves NPR, naughty jokes, and a man who lives in Toronto. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition on Unsplash