Condoms: Context Counts

Jane Jimenez

Jane Jimenez

January 10, 2005

Condoms have made front page news again this month.  They have been tested.  They have been ranked.  They have been inflated and burst and charted, from high risk to low risk.

Once again, our discussion of condoms is boiled down to a statistical “failure rate” expressed as a measure of “strength and reliability.”  These tests by Consumers Union will be reported February in Consumer Reports.

But buyer beware.  It’s not the condom we must worry about.  More important than the statistical reports of failure is the report of how…and where…these tests are conducted.  Context counts.

In a well-lit laboratory, one by one, a laboratory tech unwraps each condom and follows a well-rehearsed, methodical, and uniform procedure to place the condom on sterile lab equipment and inflate it with air until it bursts.  No STDs are present.  No sperm, no emotions, no shadows, and no youthful inexperience will cloud the results.

Using the context of controlled laboratory “perfection,” some educators want us to believe we can rest assured that condoms will save our children from the consequences of sex.  Touting statistics from laboratory tests, they say condoms “only fail” three percent of the time to prevent pregnancy.

If our children were stainless steel robots living in a germ-free laboratory, they might have a point.  But they aren’t…and they don’t.

In the context of real life, measuring the failure of condoms in the shadows, in the heat of the moment, to prevent pregnancy, the statistics demonstrate time and again that context counts.  Condoms fail to prevent pregnancy 13-15% percent of the time for real people outside of laboratories.  And if the real people are teenagers, the failure rate can be as high as 22%.

In the context of germs…bacteria…and viral infections without cure…condoms are a veritable catastrophe waiting to happen.  In the context of the real world, there are now over 25 different STDs, each with its own peculiar way of attacking the human body.

Speaking of only one of the 25 STDs, the virus that causes genital herpes lives on the body outside of areas covered by the condom.  It can be present on the body even when no symptoms of the disease are present.  This may help to explain why a disease largely unknown to the general population in the 1960s today infects one out of five people over the age of 12.

The context for condoms, considering genital herpes…and each of the other 25 STDs, is not mentioned by Consumer Reports.  It’s not their fault.  Real life doesn’t happen in a lab under bright lights with reliable machines and technicians.

The context for Consumers Union’s chart on condoms…in a magazine generally devoted to toasters, automobile radiator caps, and power drills…clouds the truth about condoms and why they fail.  Condoms are not mechanical devices submitted to uniform stress.  And when they fail, you don’t get to return the toaster for a refund.

The context for condom failure is magnified because it is the context of our life, here and now, and into the future.  Twenty percent of our adult population now lives with genital herpes.  Infertility now prevents couples from having the babies they desperately want, the result of STDs attacking the reproductive system.  And each year, in numbers equal to death from AIDS, women die of cervical cancer which is linked to an STD at least 97% of the time.

The context for condom failure is magnified because it is the context of human hopes and dreams.  Toasters don’t rejoice when they make perfect toast.  And they don’t care if they explode and burn up.  They are things.  Their failure rates are cold numbers without feeling.

Failure rates for condoms touch the human heart.  The context for condom failure, most especially for teens, is a crash and burn world where relationships last for months, weeks, days…or minutes.  If love was never present, we have taught them sex is sport.  And if love was present, it was the fleeting passion of youth that vanishes at the first sign of trouble or boredom.

When February comes and Consumer Reports hits the stands, step back a moment and remember.   Condoms that fail in the lab are one thing.  Condoms that fail in real life…that’s another thing.  Context counts.

April 2, 2004:   Sex Education: Spinning the Truth

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