Making Condoms Part of a Partner's Proper Attire

A fashion-conscious new condom campaign aims to appeal to women.

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"The women who gathered for dinner late last month were all single New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s," wrote Michael Gross in the New York Times. Describing a "girl's night out" where the conversation was all about condoms, he quoted a 26-year-old interior designer who called it a "panic situation" where everyone seems to be buying condoms because "casual sex is not worth dying for."

A sign that today's women are taking the proper precautions? Not exactly. That article was published in 1987. My, how times have changed. A report out this month from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health research organization, finds that:

  • About one third of adult women ages 20 to 44 are single and living without a partner, and about 70 percent of them have been sexually active in the past three months.
    • Nearly one quarter of single women have had two or more sex partners over the past year, putting them at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
      • Despite the fact that condoms are the most effective contraceptive method for preventing STDs, only 30 percent of single women with multiple partners have used condoms in the past month, and only 20 percent reported "always" using them over the past year.
      • In sum, there doesn't seem to be the same sense of urgency to use condoms as there was two decades ago when AIDS was first becoming a major health crisis. Perhaps advances in treating the disease have allowed a certain complacency to set in. Then again, alarm bells sounded loudly two weeks ago when a government report found that 1 in 4 teenage girls already has been infected with an STD. So maybe it's time to start having those condom conversations again.

        Proper attire. Planned Parenthood is attempting to increase the coolness of condoms with its recent launch of "Proper Attire" condoms, which target female consumers. The group's press release says the product is "being called the 'must-have' fashion accessory for women." Its fig leaf logo adorns each three-pack of condoms in various colors, tastes, and textures. "Some women feel embarrassed about carrying condoms—like it's a social taboo," explains Diane Quest, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. "We wanted to make them stylish and fun for women to carry." Currently, more than 100 Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide are selling the condom, as are several boutiques and W hotels in New York. The organization hopes its product will catch on wherever female fashions are sold and will serve women who are reluctant to purchase prophylactics in their local pharmacy or supermarket.

        There are plenty of women in that category. A University of Connecticut study found that women are less apt to buy condoms if they're found in either "positive" aisles next to sensual stuff like lubricants or in "negative" aisles—where they're usually placed—next to sanitary napkins, yeast medications, and tampons. Women are more likely to purchase condoms if they're placed in neutral aisles next to, say, shampoo. (Interestingly, men are more apt to buy protection if it's found alongside sensual products—perhaps mentally putting 1 and 1 together.)

        But there are other psychological barriers that are harder to overcome—like persuading partners to wear one. "Often fear or shame is associated with condom negotiation," says Jessica Sales, an assistant professor of health education at Emory University who is studying condom use among teenage girls. "Women might worry that it will bring up trust issues about fidelity, especially if they start pressing for condom use after a relationship is already established." Plus, a lot of men simply don't like the feel of them. "I think that people know that condoms are important," she adds, "but knowing something and doing something are completely different."