Stoking Fire: The Sexual Politics of Condom Use

In the Caribbean, where HIV is a public health crisis, government, media, business and NGOs have responded with frank and open talk about prevention. In the U.S., by contrast, 56,000 newly diagnosed cases of HIV a year get scant notice.

A few weeks back, while on vacation in St. Martin, I walked
by a community health center in the capital city of Marigot and wandered
inside. The first thing to catch my eye was a small brochure, the cover
boasting, “I’ve got My Very Own Condom!” 
The graphic depicted four girls, one more enthusiastic than the next
about female prophylactics.

I was stunned. Opening the booklet was even more shocking:
Here, in simple language, was a step-by-step guide, with explicit
illustrations, on insertion and removal of the polyurethane product.

And this was not the only thing I saw that promoted safer
sex.  A $10 phone card tells users,
“It’s all about communicating. AIDS is something to be aware of. Don’t be
afraid. Use protection.” In addition, songs on both the radio and on an
MTV-like television program called Tempo remind listeners to avoid unnecessary
risks and public service announcements offer a continuous stream of safe sex

The Caribbean, of course, has the second highest HIV
prevalence in the world—after Sub-Saharan Africa—and AIDS is a leading cause of
death for 15 to 44-year-olds in the region. According to the Kaiser Family
Fund, more than one percent of Caribbean residents are HIV positive. That this
is a public health crisis goes without saying, but the response—by government,
media, and the business and non-profit community—is nonetheless amazing, at
least when compared to what we see and hear in the US of A. Here, the fact of
56,000 newly diagnosed cases of HIV a year, reported by Julie Davids and David
Muner in Rewire on August 24, 2009, gets scant notice.

But it is not just that the promotion of safer sex gets
little play within mainstream America, it’s that even when it is mentioned, it
is pooh-poohed by the religious and secular Rightwing. Take a recent e-mail
blast from The Abstinence Clearinghouse, a national coalition of advocacy
groups working to promote “sexual abstinence [purity] until marriage.” The
mailing celebrated the release of a study with an oh-so-sexy title: Condom Use for Penile-Vaginal Intercourse
is Associated with Immature Psychological Defense Mechanisms.  
The report, written by psychology
professor Stuart Brody of the University of the West of Scotland and published
in the Archives of Sexual Behavior Journal, comes to a startlingly
irresponsible conclusion: “Safe sex is not mentally safe.”

The upshot, Brody pontificates, is that the more frequently
people have sex without condoms,
the better their psychological well being.  The reason? Condoms, he writes, block “the anti-depressants
and immunological agents in semen and genital secretions,” thereby reducing
sexual satisfaction and intimacy. Apparently, there’s nothing like the fear of
pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection to enhance pleasure.  Even more absurd, Brody’s study—he reportedly
surveyed 111 Portuguese men and 99 women—found that condom use also negates the
mental health benefits of “evolutionary relevant sex.” That is, condoms block
the biochemical response in “natural”–meaning procreative and

Forget, for a moment, the blatant heterosexism on display.
In 2007 Brody wrote that “Intercourse between women and men is the only form of
sexual behavior that improves psychological and physiological function,” so his
bias has previously been well documented.

This time, however, his promotion of mental health by denigrating
condoms not only adds to the Right’s already-ample arsenal of specious anti-safe
sex arguments, but is also a short leap to the championing of reckless, and
possibly even lethal, sexual behaviors.

Martha Klempner, Vice President for Information and
Communications at SIECUS and an Rewire contributor, is
appalled by Brody’s “science” and argues that there is “nothing we can do that
is worse than bad-mouthing safe sex. People have sex because they have sex. If
you tell young people that condoms won’t work, they will still have sex, but
they just might not use protection.” 
SIECUS’ goal is to provide people with as much information about sex and
sexual relationships as possible. 
This means, Klempner continues, offering people of all ages the tools to
protect themselves from STDs. Furthermore, it means helping them to avoid pregnancy
unless and until they’re ready to have a child.

“Condoms are important,” Klempner concludes. “They work, so
I worry that Brody’s research will be used to convince young people that not
using them is a good thing.”

Indeed, should Brody’s argument gain traction and stick, you
can bet on an increased number of STDs and unplanned pregnancies.  He—and the Abstinence Clearinghouse–should
be ashamed of promoting such utter bunk.