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Excuse Me, Is That a Trojan You’re Wearing?

February 20, 2010

Being that it is the end of fashion week in New York and Valentine’s Day just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to share an article about a fashion show in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in which all the designs were made out of condoms.  A bit of a gimmick, yes, but it did get my attention and hopefully that of style and culture makers of Ethiopia.  Condoms and family planning are key tools to aid development efforts in all countries.  Promoting them is the morally correct choice and the use of targeting youth and at risk populations through popular trends and media should pay large dividends in developing countries.

It is not questionable that the use of condoms and other contraceptives will reduce the amount of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.  By not utilizing these devices health outcomes will be worse for men, women, and children.  Women will have children before they are ready physically, emotionally and financially.  Children will be born into families not capable of caring for them and even expecting a number of them to die.  Men will contract HIV and spread it to other partners.  This is what happens.  There are myriad reasons and circumstances that construct these outcomes.  I am not going to give anecdotal case evidence because these are public health facts.  I would rather talk about the broader morality issue; that of beliefs and religion.

The majority of Africans are Christian and Muslim, just like Americans, and not coincidentally views on sexuality seem to be the similar.  In both religions the belief is held that sex is to be performed under the sanctity of marriage between man and woman.  All else is sinful and at least not condoned, if not punished.  Within this mode of thought condoms and family planning outside of one life partner, and sometimes even inside that unit, are immoral and encourage acts against God. 

I understand this theological point of view, but by denying development dollars to aid family planning programs in lieu of supporting ineffective abstinence only programs means a quantitative increase in human suffering and death.  The question I would pose to the abstinence only supporter such as former President Bush is what they feel God would want them to choose between preventing a sin or preventing a death?  Figure in to this equation that according to Christianity we are all sinners.  We all have sinned and will sin; the wage of our sin is our eventual death.  But nowhere in the Bible does it say a person should punish another person with death, sickness or hardship for engaging in pre-marital sex.    Another question I would like to ask those who would deny support to family planning: if you ever had a child who made a poor choice and had pre-marital sex, do they deserve to get pregnant or contract a life threatening life-long disease?  If you say yes I would say sadists probably don’t make the best parents.  I believe most people of sound mind would want their child to use protection, not to condone the act, but to protect them. 

In the same way you would want to protect yourself and family why wouldn’t you want to protect other people’s families?  In the case of Kenyan men raped in jail and returning to home; women who work in a fishing town in which men expect to trade goods for sex; and men who spend years abroad as migrant workers and return to their wives after being unfaithful, is it just that their partners have to suffer for their own transgressions?   

It is not a little latex balloon that causes people to have sex and promotes promiscuity.  As for here in the United States it is a culture that obsesses over the physical prowess of nubile young women and virile young men.  It is media that sells us sex all day long but then just delivers overpriced consumer goods.  Those that want to promote healthy sexual practices and change public opinion need to utilize the power of media and those with cultural cache.  Anyone who listened to the radio or watched television in the early 90’s remembers Salt-n-Pepa’s “Lets Talk About Sex”.  That one song probably did more to raise discourse about healthy sexual relationships in young people than any sex-ed class.  For better or worse, celebrities have a lot of power with people of all ages, but especially youth.  To change sexual behavior our only real hope is by reaching young people.    

The condom fashion show that was the catalyst for this post was organized by DKT; a seemingly savvy social media organization promoting contraceptives to fight HIV/AIDS.  They have enlisted the former Ethiopian beauty queen, Hayat Ahmed, as a spokesperson and partner for the Bellissima coffee shop in Addis Abbaba that serves up cappuccinos with a side condom in place of a mint or chocolate.  They have recently held an eight ball pool tournament in order to reach out to pool hall patrons as they work towards engaging youth and sexually active populations.  I am happy to see that one of their partners is the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia and it seems they have been pretty successful in getting their message heard.  How far out of Addis Ababba this message travels through Ethiopia and whether or not it is empowering women by addressing the power disparity in making decisions regarding sex remains to be seen.

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