Used to be I could joke that the only people even talking about condoms were the teens on Daytime TV. Maybe it was all the celebrity babies, or the “bump” watches. But it didn’t seem like too many grown-ups were using them. (Or any other form of birth control, for that matter.)
First Nicholas Kristof wrote a column on contraception that practically put the condom out to pasture. His rosy prediction:
The next generation of family planning products will be cheaper, more effective and easier to use — they could be to today’s condoms and diaphragms what a smartphone is to the bricklike cellphones of 20 years ago. (Kristof, “Birth Control Over Baldness,” NYT, 9/26/10)
Condoms made the news again a few days later in the coverage of a new study on American sexual behavior published by The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The chief talking point? Sexually active teens are using condoms on a more regular basis than their Baby Boomer parents (and grandparents). Even when the parent or grandparent is having sex with a stranger.
The stories themselves are a mixed bag. If Kristof is right about the future of reproductive technology, it would not only be good news for women looking for effective forms of birth control—it could very well be the key to our survival as a species, given the threat of overpopulation. And if teenagers are using condoms more than boomers, well, that’s fewer unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among teens. And for their elders? A lot of tough questions.
Here’s one of mine: does the generational usage gap have something to do with how each group thinks about condoms? I’m not a statistician, so I leave the fact-finding to professionals. But I would hazard a guess that the over-fifty set may think of the condom primarily as a form of contraception—not the Safe Sex staple it morphed into after the onset of AIDS.
If this perception is true, the implications are dire for boomers. The good news is that there are already efforts underway to educate them about the facts of their risky sexual lives. It’s the flip side of the equation that bothers me, the side that wonders if teens are using condoms mainly to prevent the transmission of STDs.
On one level, I know it doesn’t matter. Condoms will help prevent pregnancy and reduce the risks of transmitting disease with the same efficacy regardless of user-intent. But what does matter is what it might mean for women in a broader sense. The condom already holds the dubious honor of being the only form of birth control available to men. (Though if Kristof is right, that may soon change.) If teenage boys are using them mostly out of self-interest—an interest in not getting sick, that is, not in avoiding unplanned pregnancy—does that mean they’ll stop using them once they’re convinced their partners are disease-free? Have we really not come any farther than this in spreading the gospel of gender equity?
If all this meant was that I found one more fantastic reason to urge women to take full responsibility for their reproductive lives—and to hope for the technological breakthroughs Kristof anticipates, I’d be less prickly. Sure, in a perfect world men would embrace the ideal of mutuality for the betterment of all humanity. But in the meantime, how do we establish birth control as a basic human right if pregnancy is still seen as something that only happens to women?
I’d hate to think the answer is to simply harp on what must be the misogynist’s bitterest pill: without men and women, there would be none of us living happily ever after.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.