Condoms Still Suck, No Matter What Joycelyn Elders Thinks (She's on Trojan's Payroll)
|Illustration by Jimmy Giegerich|
By Dr. Paul R. Abramson & L.J. Williamson
The good news: Joycelyn Elders, former surgeon general of the United States, reads L.A. Weekly!
The bad news: She's pissed at us. We made Dr. Elders mad because we said that condoms suck.
Maybe if we hadn't said anything, no one would have noticed. Maybe instead, they would have believed the study Elders cited in her letter to the editor, which found "no difference in terms of pleasure, arousal and orgasm between those who used a condom and those who did not."
We've admired Elders ever since she had the guts to state a plain and obvious truth about masturbation, a truth that got her fired. Which is why we're now blown away by her so-silly-it's-embarrassing insistence that there is no difference between sex with a condom and sex without one. What happened to the courageous, straight-talking woman we fell in love with in the '90s?
She's now on Trojan's payroll.
Elders chairs the Trojan Sexual Health Advisory Council. And it was her role with that group, apparently, that prompted her to send us a letter, co-signed by a number of other educators of great distinction. (Read the unedited version at bit.ly/CondomResponse.)
We couldn't help but notice, though, that those other educators were predominantly female. A mostly female panel weighing in on the experience of wearing condoms reminds us of the all-male House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform pontificating about women's access to birth control. Something ain't right with this picture.
And that study? Elders didn't mention this in her letter, but it was funded by Trojan's parent company, Church & Dwight.
We're happy that Church & Dwight threw some Benjamins into sex research. But finding no difference between sheathed and unsheathed sex is surprising, until you discover that Trojan footed the bill. The authors also were required to submit their findings to Church & Dwight for approval prior to release.
The financial entanglements are -- much like some condoms -- a tad too tight for comfort.
It's not just the funding source of this study that we have a problem with. It's the methodology.
Those who participated in the online survey were asked to rate their most recent instance of penile-vaginal sex on a scale of 1 (no pleasure at all) to 5 (extremely pleasurable). Based on those scores, the study concludes, condom usage "was not a significant predictor of ratings of pleasure, arousal ... or orgasm."
But who is most likely to recall using a condom during their last sexual encounter? According to the survey, a majority of people in relationships -- about 85 percent -- rarely used them. It was only those having sex with a new partner, about 4 percent of those surveyed, who report a modest rate of condom usage, with about 33 percent of that small sample claiming to rubber up.
The problems with this setup are manifold. By asking for respondents' most recent experiences, the survey relies upon notoriously erratic memories. Its findings also are likely skewed by the nature of which respondents opted for, and thereafter remembered, protection. If some folks with a new partner recollect having great fun despite using a condom, well, so what? Is that surprising? The infamous "Coolidge effect" implies that sex with a new partner is always hotter. Does that prove that sex feels just as good with a condom? Hardly.
As the authors of this survey themselves acknowledge, you would have to study the same people over time, bareback and hooded, to see if the sex feels just as good both ways. This study didn't do that. (Also worth noting: By asking only about penile/vaginal sex, the survey leaves out gay respondents.)
When a study's findings raise serious eyebrows -- like discovering there's no difference in pleasure between latex and bareback -- the protocol is to bring out the caution tape. You muzzle the trumpets and try to replicate those findings. Instead, the Trojan-funded Sexual Health Advisory Council is now trotting out a counterintuitive, unreplicated conclusion in an attempt to squelch a politically incorrect point of view.
The ironic thing about Dr. Elders' complaint letter is how often she agrees with us. She agrees with almost every point that we made in the article: that condoms are currently the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections, that better-feeling barrier methods will lead to higher usage rates, even that we need to put significant investment into the development of better-feeling condom alternatives. Her sole complaint seems to be that we bad-mouthed the sacred condom by saying it could use some improvement. But Elders' don't-you-dare-say-anything-negative-about-condoms viewpoint is exactly the sort of thinking that holds back innovation.
Remember, even Elders' own numbers indicate that two out of three sex acts by first-time partners are not protected by a condom -- and that most people in relationships aren't using them at all. Presumably, these statistics were gathered before "Condoms Suck" was published. Something else must have funjacked the condom even before we blew the lid off this big secret.
So don't shoot us -- we're just the messengers. Elders, of all people, should know how it feels to get grief for telling it like it is. Saying that we need to do better because our lives depend upon it is hardly irresponsible. Maintaining pretense and silence is the weaker strategy.
Further finger-wagging at us, Elders employs the miserable "just one person" rhetorical device, writing, "If just one person were to see this article as a reason not to use condoms, thereby increasing his/her risk of unintended pregnancy, HIV or other STDs, well, that really would suck."
Please. Nowhere in our article did we discourage condom use, and if "just one person" interpreted our discussion of the crucial urgency of preventing ravaging, life-threatening, sexually transmitted infections as an invitation to indulge in unprotected sex, that one person wasn't listening in the first place.
We believe that condom compliance has reached a saturation point. Take the suck out of condoms and compliance rates will go through the roof.
Steve Jobs was not the guy who invented the computer, or any other fancy gadget. He was merely the guy who made them user-friendly. That was his genius, and the world beat a path to his door. Imagine if we could invent a barrier method applied like lube; now that would be a Steve Jobs moment.
We're delighted when we hear that companies are tinkering with latex condoms by adding things like textured shapes (e.g., Trojan) or a vast range of sizes (e.g., TheyFit). Go for it -- make better condoms for the here and now. But we hope that the world's resources don't get wasted on these Hail Marys.
We have high hopes for the gel condom we've been hearing about, or for condoms made from new and different materials. We want a game-changer. And anyone who thinks we're wrong to call for that -- whether that's Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the other members of the Trojan Sexual Health Advisory Council or even people who aren't taking money from Trojan -- they're fumbling the ball.
Franz Kafka believed that "the nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired." It's time to sufficiently desire a better-feeling alternative to the condom. Because when all is said and done, condoms still suck.
There, we said it again.
Dr. Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA and the author (with Steve Pinkerton) of With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality. L.J. Williamson is a regular contributor to L.A. Weekly.