Condom war's latest skirmish

Posted: Aug 06, 2001 12:00 AM
In bygone times, people understood that sex could be many things, but "safe" was not one of them. Even if there were no risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), there was the possibility of pregnancy, to say nothing of betrayal, heartbreak, jealous rages, murder and true love. But then came AIDS. The common sense response to the advent of a fatal, sexually transmitted disease would be a retreat from promiscuity. But the smart set soon corrected common sense. The answer to AIDS, we were instructed, was not less promiscuous behavior, it was condoms! The lowly condom, once disdained as the very least reliable method of birth control, was now extolled as the solution to all sexual problems. No need to moderate or, heaven forbid, repress your sexual appetites. Latex uber alles. Except for two little details: There is more to be feared from rampant promiscuity than STDs, and, importantly, condoms have been oversold as guarantors of "safe sex." Conservatives have long been urging that this is the case, but they've been scorned by the liberati (liberal plus glitterati) as sex-hating primitives. Former Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician, attempted to prove that condoms are not reliable. Before leaving the Congress, he asked the National Institutes of Health to survey the literature. NIH has done so. The results are mixed. There are good data, it seems, on the usefulness of condoms in preventing or inhibiting the spread of HIV in men and women, and gonorrhea in men. But the data are simply inadequate to suggest that condoms prevent the transmission of other STDs. Among the diseases the literature cannot say condoms prevent are syphilis, herpes, chancroid, chlamydial infection, trichomoniasis, human pappilomavirus (HPV) and HPV-related diseases, like genital warts in men and cervical neoplasia in women. HPV is one of the chief causes of cervical cancer in women. Each year, 15 million new cases of STDs are contracted, and an estimated 20 percent of American adults are afflicted with one at any given time. Since the 1980s, AIDS has taken the lives of 450,000 Americans, and 800,000 to 900,000 Americans are living with AIDS. STDs have a variety of health effects. Untreated, the most serious cause insanity and death. Others can cause miscarriages, infertility, still births and ectopic pregnancies. Untreated STDs also vastly increase the chances of contracting HIV. Conservatives are touting the NIH report as evidence that condoms don't work. This is overkill. The report did not say that. Liberals are saying, in the words of tTe New York Times, that "there is not enough evidence to say
for certain that they protect against other sexually transmitted diseases." That is underkill. The NIH had no trouble concluding from the survey that condoms provide protection against HIV and gonorrhea in men -- surely there is a reason the research did not yield similar conclusions about other STDs. One can speculate about why this might be so. Diseases that feature lesions on the whole genital area, not just the penis, would not be prevented by condom use. And there is always the question of how conscientiously the product is used. Liberals are underplaying this report (there was a rumor that some at NIH attempted to bury it) because they have put all their eggs in the "safe sex" basket. No pesky doubts should be permitted to cloud the happy image of latex-clad lads and lassies (yes, there are female condoms) merrily pursuing pleasure in every bed they chance upon. And conservatives are reading a bit too much into the survey, declaring that the results "prove that (safe sex) is a lie." It is a lie, but not because this survey proves it. Each new sexual contact a person has increases his or her chances of contracting a disease, even if condoms are used. And it is a lie because the constant invocation of "safe sex" guidelines offer a false sense of rectitude to people whose overall behavior is not safe, but risky and irresponsible. Cautious and prudent people would think twice before assuming that a condom provides protection for anything other than HIV and gonorrhea in men. And ethical people should have known all along that uncommitted, randy behavior is bad for body and soul.