No one knows where condoms got their name — theories include bawdy King Charles II’s Irish physician Dr. Condon, or the town of Condom in Southern France — but they’ve been around long enough to accumulate a storied history. Gabrielle Fallopius first mentioned using linen sheaths as protection against VD in sixteenth-century Italy, and they quickly became popular with aristocratic libertines who wanted to avoid the fun of having their noses rot off from syphilis. (Showing that men have been ever mindful of their partners’ pleasure, early models were tied on with a pretty ribbon.)
The only problem with the beta version of the prophylactic was that it was out of most people’s price range. Thankfully, Charles Goodyear’s discovery of the vulcanization process fixed that, and by the 1850s, rubbers were cheaply mass-produced. This, however, only replaced one
problem with another: using these early préservatifs was like fucking though a tire, and even worse, you had to wash it out and re-use it when you were done. But by 1912, Julius Fromm had invented the modern disposable prophylactic by dipping molds into the rubber solution; he quickly took over the market.
Today, thanks to the advent of AIDS and the resulting safer-sex campaigns, condoms have replaced birth-control pill dispensers as the standard nightstand accessory. Yet the Coney Island whitefish was an endangered species in the United States from the late 1800s until the 1920s. The reason why is a fascinating and instructive bit of cultural history.
It was in 1873 that "Secretary and Special Agent for the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Post Office Inspector" Anthony Comstock, a Civil War veteran and former dry-goods clerk, succeeded in persuading Congress to pass the so-called "Comstock laws." These laws forbade the trafficking of any material judged obscene — including any sort of advertising for, or public discussion of, "devices or techniques meant to provide protection against conception or venereal disease." Comstock was backed by the New York City-based Young Men’s Christian Association, an evangelical organization founded by businessmen for the spiritual uplift and material benefit of the city’s young professional men. Left to their own devices, the urban missionaries feared, single men would fall into citified vices like playing mumblety-peg, hanging around saloons, and conversing with harlots.
But World War I brought America face-to-face with the results of the stupidity of the Comstock laws, causing a significant change in the nation’s attitude towards condoms. “Once they’ve seen Paris, how are you going to keep them down on the farm?” was the question asked in towns all across America, but fond memories were not all that sexually naïve American soldiers, let loose in wartime Europe, had brought home. America was the only combatant nation to deny condoms to its troops. The result was that 383,000 American soldiers contracted venereal disease — about 60,000 more than were killed or wounded in battle. The nation had learned its lesson. Comstock laws or not, condoms — three to a brightly illustrated tin — were stocked under drugstore counters from coast to coast.
Most prominent was the Ramses brand, manufactured by the German-born "condom king," Julius Schmid. He had initially worked as a sausage-stuffer after he landed in New York in the 1880s, but soon found that selling empty casings for customers to stuff their own meat into to be a far more profitable business. Another New Yorker, Merle Young, started the wildly successful Trojan condom company, while Sheiks capitalized on Rudolf Valentino’s reputation as a lover and the title of his most famous movie. The Society for the Suppression of Vice never recovered from the blow, and Comstockery in America began a long period of decline. (As for the Society’s YMCA backers, they were given their just desserts in 1978 by the Village People.)
Despite all the hoo-ha about the Pill, condoms were the number-one birth control device for most of the postwar period. During World War II, the government handed out rubbers and instructions free to GIs. The proliferation of chain drugstores in the 1950s made it easy to buy some without the whole town knowing. While condom sales data isn’t available, Katner and Zelnik’s 1971 survey of sexually active teenage girls, the first systematic study of its kind undertaken in the United States, revealed that condoms were the favored birth-control method among those who bothered to use any at all — and especially among those under college age, who couldn’t get prescriptions for the Pill without their parents finding out.
If there was ever a danger of condoms losing out to the Pill, the advent of AIDS in the early ’80s nixed that. Even the Reagan administration was forced to reverse its "silence = votes" stance, and begin a massive public-education campaign in 1986. Condom use doubled amongst sexually active young adults between 1982 and 1995 as an entire generation learned to equate sex with latex. But like any other paraphernalia of vice (as Comstock would have put it), condoms still excite controversy. Reagan’s surgeon general C. Everett Koop was crucified in 1986 by the Christian Right for daring to suggest that condoms be used to prevent AIDS, while Jesse Helms gave impassioned speeches on the Senate floor equating sex education and promoting prophylactics with the downfall of Western civilization.
While these debates seem utterly ridiculous twenty years later, the abstinence-only crowd has developed an arsenal of new strategies, such as denying that condoms do what they’re supposed to do. For instance, a couple of years ago conservative Christians in Texas produced radio commercials that claimed, "Condoms will not protect people from many sexually transmitted diseases." (Sure, they’re not foolproof — but they’re a damn sight better than unprotected sex.) Similarly, abortionfacts.com, run by the Arizona-based anti-choice group Heritage House ’76, claims that “The only absolutely guaranteed, permanent contraception is castration.” (We’ll get right on that.) Today, only thirty-five states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV and STD education; twenty-five of these require abstinence to be emphasized. Only eight states require that condoms be discussed.
Of course, even if they’re not getting briefed on condom use in sex-ed class, American teenagers are neither stupider than their ’50s counterparts nor living in an information vacuum — and we’ve never heard of a pharmacist refusing to sell someone a pack of Trojans, as they might if you were a woman who needed the morning-after pill. (If you’ve experienced otherwise, please click the feedback button and let us know!)
The effect of this willful ignorance is felt in needier places. At one point, the U.S. government was giving away condoms to the Third World as if they were party balloons — 800 million a year in the early ’90s. According to a UC-Berkeley study, that worked out to $3.50 per year of life saved. In human terms, this means fewer children orphaned, fewer families burdened by the expense of retroviral drugs, and that the nonexistent health systems of impoverished countries won’t be overtaxed by disease-ravaged citizens.
Yet thanks to pressure from modern Comstocks, the Bush administration has insisted that any suggestion of condom use be removed from public-health websites and publications. They’ve supported the junk science that claims condoms don’t work. And they’ve reduced the number of rubbers we provide to developing nations by about 75%. Apparently, we’ve forgotten the lesson we learned at such cost almost a century ago, once again putting self-righteous prudery ahead of alleviating human misery. n°
©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|