$elling condom sense Companies seek creative ways to promote safe sex pratices

February 09, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

In the '90s, the condom is being sold broadly and openly as something the hip consumer can't be without. Call it Sheik chic.

Manufacturers and entrepreneurs are finding new -- and sometimes exotic means -- to market and distribute prophylactics to a sometimes reluctant public.

To wit: A comic book editor plans to include a free condom in his next installment. Boutiques sell boxer shorts patterned with smiling condoms that glow in the dark. And Planned Parenthood of Maryland offers a Valentine's Day card for your sweetheart -- complete with a condom.

The underlying message is that sex with a condom can be safe and fun.

At various stores in the area consumers can purchase condoms in discreet and colorful pouches, miniature shopping bags and within key chains and pretty Victorian envelopes. Companies like Moi Inc., based in Bel Air, and Umoja Sasa in Baltimore, market condoms to appeal to women and African-Americans.

Some products -- like condom lollipops and earrings -- are sold as novelties and do not provide protection. But these whimsical variations on the theme of safe sex help to get the message across.

Still, the condom has a long way to go before it becomes second nature as both a birth-control device and a defense against diseases, health care professionals and condom entrepreneurs say.

"My impression is that people are using condoms more than they used to, but are not using them as consistently as would be necessary to completely protect against HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases," says Kathryn London, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics.

Condom sales tell part of the story: After then-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called for condom use to fight acquired immune deficiency syndrome in 1986, sales rose sharply. More recently, the condom market has been "pretty flat," says Sharyn Sullivan, sales-administration manager for Ansell Inc., a New Jersey-based condom manufacturer.

Health statistics confirm condoms are not used nearly as often as they should be. A 1990 issue of Population Reports, published by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, reported that about 6 million condoms are being used each year worldwide. But, it says, "more than twice as many -- 13,000 million condoms -- should be used to protect the health and lives of men and women."

A more recent study on American sexual behavior showed that about 66 percent of heterosexuals with more than one partner do not use condoms consistently. The same report found that 70 percent of heterosexuals with partners in groups that are at a high risk of getting AIDS never use condoms.

XTC The popularization of condoms is "scratching the surface," says Dr. Michael Johnson, assistant professor of international health at Hopkins' School of Hygiene. "It's a start," he says.

With Dr. Alfred Saah, Dr. Johnson is running a condom education program for members of the National Basketball Players' Association.

For condoms to have a major impact, sexual behavior must change drastically, Dr. Johnson says. "I think everybody needs to be using a condom all the time when they have sex unless they know themselves to be HIV negative and they know their partner to be HIV negative."

Successful condom education is not a matter of one quick lecture. "What we're doing is getting information to people and reinforcing it, by giving the information several times and giving constant encouragement to use the information. That's been a problem with HIV education in general," Dr. Johnson says. "I don't think anybody could expect to change somebody's sexual behavior by talking to them once for half an hour or giving them a pamphlet. Integrated, comprehensive intervention is a time-consuming and expensive thing to do; but in the long run . . . HIV is much more expensive than the cost of giving the education."

Condoms are increasingly available in drug stores, grocery stores, gift and card shops as well as vending machines in bars, gas stations and on college campuses. Condom boutiques have sprouted around the country. The 18-year-old Rubber Tree, a nonprofit mail-order condom company in Seattle, has spawned a generation of for-profit imitators. Condom distribution programs, such as Maryland's Three for Free program, dispense millions of free condoms annually.

Still, resistance to using condoms is great. As co-owner of CondomRageous, a Georgetown condom store, Glenn McKinney sees it up close. "People still don't think they're going to die," he says. "Anybody under the age of 25 is the most difficult buyer," he says, because they believe they are immortal.

In contrast, "Middle-aged women are the best buyers," and the gay community, hard hit by AIDS, is "very well educated" about condoms, Mr. McKinney says.

Condom education and variety has made a difference, "especially in the college age and young professionals," says Jeff Goodman, marketing director for Global Protection Corp., a custom condom company based in Massachusetts. At Goucher

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