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.
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."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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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.