Condoms: What the Pope Said and What You May Not Know!

This is a guest blog by JP, blogUT founder and former editor, who has gone on to do bigger and better things, like uh… open an online store to sell condoms.

Pope Condoms

So, by now, I’m sure you’ve all heard about the general uproar over the pope’s comments regarding condoms during his visit to Africa. Here’s a recap of what he said, according to The Times Online:

In his first public comments on condom use, the pontiff told reporters en route to Cameroon that Aids “is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”

As it turns out, the issue is always more complicated than it appears at surface level. What if I were to tell you that: the pope didn’t exactly say what you thought he said; condoms aren’t exactly “safe”; and I’m writing about all this as a subject matter expert on condoms after having done a whole bunch of research in the process of opening an online condoms store?

Well, I’m about to tell you exactly that. So please read on.

First of all, let’s all agree that the mainstream media is sensationalist and they love a controversy as much as a skinny vegan loves tofu. With titles like “Pope claims condoms could make African Aids crisis worse” (The Guardian), it certainly sounds like the pope’s a babbling buffoon. However the actual message is more subtle than that. here’s a translation by a commenter on a blog:

Here is an English translation of what he actually said: “… The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanisation of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with the suffering, a readiness – even through personal sacrifice – to stand by those who suffer.”

The commenter goes on to say “When the Pope’s response read in its entirety, I think it becomes clear that his reference to a worsening of the ‘problem’ does not refer purely to the epidemiological aspect of HIV transmission, but rather on AIDS as a damaging consequence of the dehumanisation of sexuality.”

Okay, so the pope said this and different people are interpreting it in different ways. Maybe he did mean to say condoms worsen the problem of AIDS, maybe he didn’t… whatever. But on a subject matter like the effectiveness of condoms in HIV prevention, we can certainly find more qualified sources of information. For example, here’s the stance by UNAIDS: “The male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

But wait, just how effective are condoms exactly? Care to hazard a guess? (Really, we should all know this!) Most people will cite something like 97% or 98%. That’s not exactly correct. 98% is the effectiveness of condoms in preventing pregnancies under perfect use, according to For typical use scenarios (that is, accounting for the possibility of breakage, slippage, and accidental improper usage), condoms are 85% effective. Still, what does 85% effective mean? It means that in one year of typical use, 85 percent of women will remain pregnancy free (source).

What about STI’s (sexually transmitted infections)? Let’s talk about HIV first: in a two-year study of sero-discordant couples (in which one partner was HIV-positive and one was HIV-negative), 2% of uninfected partners who used condoms consistently became HIV-infected versus 12% among those who used condoms inconsistently or not at all (source). As for other STI’s, the numbers are not so precise. Scientific studies do provide evidence that latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of gonorrhea and chlamydia infection, since they’re transmitted via genital secretions (this info is from USAID). Condoms also provide some protection against genital ulcer STIs—such as genital herpes, syphilis, and chancroid—which are transmitted through contact with sores/ulcers or infected skin. However, remember that these STIs may be transmitted across surfaces not covered or protected by the condom.

I think there has been a definite lack of clarity in communicating the message regarding condom use. I don’t know who pushed the phrase “safe sex”, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it was the condom manufacturers keen on pushing sales. Sex with a condom is by no means “safe”.

Let’s wrap this all up with an anecdote. When I first came to U of T, I learned of a service called WalkSafer: basically you call a number and two people will walk with you at night to make sure you’re safe. I always thought it was funny they didn’t call it “WalkSafe”, only “WalkSafer“. But you know, they’re absolutely right! There’s no way they can guarantee that you’ll be safe! You might still get hit by a bus, twist your ankle, or get bitten by a rabid squirrel, who knows! WalkSafer: they can only assure you that you’re walking a little bit safer.

We can think of condoms the same way. It isn’t “safe sex”. It’s “safer sex” or “less risky sex”. As always, we should use our judgment and discretion and be responsible for our own safety.

Now this part is just a shameless plug:
This article is a guest blog by JP, founder and former editor of blogUT. JP really runs an online condom store: Top Condoms Canada. No jokes! Curious? Check it out. =)

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