Poking Holes: Too Many Condom Users are Making Mistakes

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Commentary Contraception

Poking Holes: Too Many Condom Users are Making Mistakes

Martha Kempner

When used correctly, condoms are a very good form of birth control and the only method (other than abstinence) that can prevent STDs. Unfortunately, new research shows that too many people are not using them correctly. 

There are a lot of perks to working from home as a writer. No money or time spent commuting, good schedule, opportunity to work out (which I actually did today), and the ability to work in my pjs.  One of the pitfalls though is that when you’re having a little bit of writer’s block there are so many potential distractions to take your attention away from the perpetually blank page.  I had been trying to write a piece about condoms all morning since National Condom Month is ending and I thought it was important to use the opportunity (the extra day of February in particular) to sing the praises of this much maligned and unappreciated form of birth control.  

For some reason, maybe because I’ve written about condoms so very many times before, I just couldn’t get anything I liked down.  So I did some laundry, started the crock pot, and then, I admit it, turned on reruns of Law & Order: SVU.  In a coincidence that many readers might not believe but I swear is actually true, the episode that was airing starred John Stamos as a serial impregnator or as the detectives called him a “reproductive abuser.”

And the plot hinged on broken condoms.

As I watched this somewhat unrealistic drama unfold, I was disheartened to hear about the broken condoms. Too often on television, from soap operas to reality TV shows, condoms are blamed for causing pregnancies at an alarming rate, and I figured SVU was just repeating the usual myths and misunderstandings.  In fact, at the mention of the character’s second broken condom, I got mad and started writing a letter to the producers in my head (despite the fact that this episode originally aired a long time ago and I’m sure they wouldn’t care anymore). But then it turned out that Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson also found the idea of a guy having two condoms spontaneously break in the period of just a few days to be a questionable at best.  She pointed out that condoms only break about one percent of the time. Her suspicion started an investigation that uncovered 47 children before the police bust in on Stamos sitting in a posh hotel bathroom poking holes in a condom. Ahh, so that’s how he knocked up so many women.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Now few people will face a situation where a condom is deliberately misused by a former soap star but according to new research in the Journal of Sexual Health many people are using condoms incorrectly.  Researchers looked at over 50 studies on condom use in 14 countries and found hugely varied instances of breakage (reported by anywhere between 0.8 percent to 40.7 percent of participants in these studies), slippage (reported by between 13.1 and 19.3 percent of participants), and leakage (reported by 7.6 percent of men and 12.5 percent of women).  By further looking at these studies, the researchers determined some of the ways in which participants were using condoms incorrectly.  

Putting it on too late.  A condom needs to be put on before sex and kept on until the end but many people are not doing this. The study found that between 17 percent and 51.1 percent of people reported putting a condom on after intercourse had already begun.  Obviously, the condom can’t work if it’s not on and while there is still debate over whether there is sperm in pre-ejaculate (which would mean this had pregnancy implications) there definitely can be STD pathogens in pre-ejaculate and a condom that’s still on the nightstand cannot protect against skin-to-skin transmitted STDs like Herpes or Human papilloma virus.

Taking it off too early.  A condom is often described as a sheath worn over the penis to collect ejaculate thereby preventing sperm and egg from meeting or STD germs from being shared.  It seems pretty logical that if you take it off before ejaculation it’s not going to be able to do its job. And yet, in the studies examined between 13.6 percent and 44.7 percent of respondents reported having taken a condom off before intercourse was over.  

Putting it on wrong.  Condoms are not particularly hard to use but like anything else individuals need to learn how to do it and many don’t.  Because condoms can be bought anywhere from a the convenience store at a gas station to a vending machine in the bathroom at a bar, most people don’t come in contact with a health professional who could explain how to work it the way they would if they used a prescription birth control method like the pill. And, since the mere suggestion of condom demonstrations in school seems to send many communities into a tizzy, most students don’t learn there. 

There are good condom instructions in the box and more on the web but, unfortunately, not everyone has seen them or taken them to heart so some errors persist:

  • Between 2.1 percent and 25.3 percent of people reported completely unrolling a condom before putting it on.
  • Between 24.3 percent and 45.7 percent of respondents failed to leave a reservoir for semen (which is necessary in some condoms but not all depending on their shape).
  • Between 4 percent and 30.4 percent of people reported rolling on a condom inside out and then flipping it over and putting it on the right way (this could expose their partner to pre-ejaculate).  
  • Between 11.2 percent of women and 8.8 percent of men didn’t unroll the condom all the way before intercourse. 

Taking it off wrong. So getting back to that idea that a condom is a sheath that is meant to collect ejaculate; in order for it to do that you have to not only put it on time (before sex starts) but you have to take it off in time. In this case, in time means before the man’s erection goes down because once his penis gets smaller the condom won’t fit as tightly and the ejaculate can seep out. For added protection from seepage and slippage, condom users should hold on to the bottom ring of the condom as they pull out. Unfortunately, in the studies examined, about 31 percent of men and 27 percent of women reported failing to pull out promptly and properly. 

Lubrication issues.  The first time I was ever on television, I debated a leader in the abstinence-only movement about all issues related to sex education. At one point, she exclaimed in disbelief that some sex education programs were teaching kids about lubricant. When the host (who genuinely seemed not to know) asked her what lubricant was she giggled and refused to answer. The host turned to me and I said simply, “Condoms work best when they are combined with lubricants which can cut down on friction and the risk of breaking but young people need to know which kind of lubricants to use because anything with oil in it (like baby oil or whipped cream) can cause the latex to break down.”  (Okay, I only managed to get half of that in before my opponent interrupted but it’s what I would have said.) Given my opponent’s reaction and the host’s ignorance, it’s not surprising that many condom users don’t have this information or at least don’t use lubricants correctly. The study found that between 16 and 25.8 percent of respondents had used condoms without lubrication and between 3.2 percent of women and 4.7 percent of men had used the wrong kinds of lubricant.

Using it Twice. This one kind of grosses me out. I don’t know if people are trying to be thrifty or just run out and think that a used condom is better than none but I can’t imagine trying to put a condom back on – it would be like putting on a wet bathing suit, only stickier.  And not effective. The good news is that not very many condom users are making this mistake; only between 1.4 percent and 3.3 percent of study respondents had re-used a condom at least twice during a sexual encounter.  Still, some people need to be reminded that condoms are easy to obtain and inexpensive (online I found them for about 80 cents a condom) and for people who really can’t afford them there are many clinics and health departments that give them out for free. 

Sharp objects. Whether it’s a scissor, a nail clipper, someone’s teeth, or John Stamos’s pin, apparently some condom users (even those who are not deliberately poking holes) make the mistake of letting the condom come into contact with sharp objects.  According to the study, between 2.1 percent and 11.2 percent of respondents had opened condom packets with sharp objects or otherwise exposed the latex to tearing.  

Condoms are a great form of birth control – they are cheap, easy to obtain, have no side effects (less than 3 percent of the population is allergic to latex and for them there are other kinds), take very little advanced planning, and work well.  Used correctly, condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.  And they are the only method (other than not having sex) that also prevents STDs.   But, as this study shows, too many people are using them incorrectly. 

So in honor of National Condom Month, it’s time to start spreading the word about how easy it can be to use condoms properly.  The Trojan Sexual Health Advisory Council (of which I am a member) has put out this video.  Meant to be a little silly and hopefully a lot of fun, it goes over these common errors and illustrates correct condom use.  Enjoy.

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