In Latex We Trust

January 12, 1994|By NICK COLEMAN

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St. Paul, Minnesota. -- In latex we trust. The Clinton administration, taking advantage of a slow news day (no state-trooper stories, no charges of financial wrongdoing), went to bat for America's condom makers last week, urging patriotic Americans to get it on.

At a press conference in Washington, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala unveiled a series of clever TV and radio announcements promoting latex condoms as a barrier to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

One TV ad features an animated condom package that, behaving like a superhero, races to jump into the action between an amorous pair of people in a nearby bed. It's cute, it's politically correct (the lovers are of indeterminate gender) and -- who knows? -- by next Christmas, millions of American children may hope to find a cuddly Mr. Condom in their stockings.

Somehow, it's hard to imagine sexually active young people, looking up from their homework and exclaiming, ''The devil you say! A condom can help stop AIDS? Heavens, I did not know that! I simply must drop in at Condoms 'R' Us and buy a few dozen before I go to the orgy tomorrow night.''

The Clinton condom campaign is being hailed as a progressive triumph over the religious zealots in the Reagan administration who prevented our young folks from learning about the life-saving properties of latex. Please excuse me if I don't feel like making whoopee.

Condoms are useful in preventing pregnancy. And, as any idiot already knows, they are useful in preventing disease. But they have to be used correctly and they have to be used every time and if you think those two things are easy, then you have a lot of unplanned pregnancies to explain. And to stop viruses, not just sperm (which are hundreds of times larger than the HIV virus), condoms must be used carefully (some lubricants weaken the condoms, making them less safe).

Add up all the caveats and it is hard to understand why the new condom ads don't include warnings that you still might end up dead.

The warnings could at least mimic toothpaste disclaimers: ''E-Z Use Condoms have been shown to be an effective disease preventative that can be of significant value when conscientiously applied in a program of sexual hygiene and regular professional care. But, hey, don't sue us if you get AIDS and die. Look at toothpaste: Cavities still happen.''

In the fight against AIDS, the condom is only a stopgap, one which, if improperly promoted and unwisely glamorized, offers a dangerous sense of safety. Condoms, like a catcher's equipment, are tools of ignorance.

One of the least helpful Shalala-grams, made for radio, featured the star of a rock band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose members once posed naked with socks over their penises. After pretending to don a condom, he urged listeners to emulate him by using a condom each time they have sex. The government scrubbed the ad after the embarrassing discovery that its spokesman for safe sex was once convicted of sexual battery.

As a small sop to those who don't believe latex can save the nation, the Shalala-grams also include a couple of tepid spots promoting abstinence. The choice then, as presented in slick government commercials, is a choice between getting naked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers or staying home. If you were 16 and the government said condoms were cute, which would seem more enticing?

As usual, love and commitment are ignored to death. There are no TV spots in which a cute little package labeled ''meaningful, monogamous relationship'' jumps into bed with the tangled partners in time to save them from cheap sex.

We don't have the guts to preach commitment to young people. Condoms are all we have to offer, peddled by government officials, rock stars and latex superheroes whose message is that sex is OK, whenever and with whomever, as long as you put your faith and your bodily fluids in Mr. Condom.

Something is missing from this picture.

Nick Coleman is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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