Christine Barrow, Monique Springer and Juliette Maughan share initiatives aimed at bringing condoms back into HIV prevention
Condoms seem to be diminishing in importance in HIV response programming. This may be due, in part, to the shift in focus from sexual risk and personal responsibility for protection to social vulnerability and structural drivers of HIV. But it may also be due to the persistent cloak of secrecy and shame around condom use. And yet, in the absence of a vaccine, reliable microbicides or other medical prevention, condoms continue to be the only effective barrier against HIV transmission.
Condoms as protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STI) have always been hidden away in back pockets and dark cupboards. With the advent of HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s, the taboo intensified. In the ABC formula for HIV prevention, the C was considered third best to A and B in the moral sexual continuum. Abstinence guaranteed protection, as did being faithful in marriage; for sexual dissidents who could manage neither, condoms might be the answer. Condoms also became evidence of HIV infection, given the absence of visible symptoms in the early years of illness. Conversely, eschewing the need for a condom encodes fidelity and being STI and HIV free. Research in Jamaica indicates that condoms also symbolise homosexuality: for that reason, men who identify as straight resist condoms.
Inconsistent condom use among adolescents sets off alarm bells in HIV programming. This is often attributed to unplanned or spontaneous sex – “it just happened” – among youth who take chances. But more recent research among adolescent girls in Barbados suggests that the absence of condoms may be as much an issue of sexual morality as spontaneity. Condoms contradict the ideals of love and trust in adolescent relationships. Paradoxically, though girls are more likely to insist on condom use, they have higher levels of unprotected sex to please their partners. Condoms are “embarrassing” and tainted, and girls who source and produce them are considered “loose” and “dirty”. Condom use not just a practical matter of putting it on; for adolescent girls it is laden with the moral baggage of heteronormativity that defines and regulates their lives in accordance with an orthodoxy of abstinence, love, fidelity and social respectability.
In response to the imperative of rebranding condoms and renewing their promotion as protection against HIV, especially among young people, the University of the West Indies HIV&AIDS Programme (UWIHARP) at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, launched their first condom fair, on 30 March 2012. Organised by Monique Springer, Project Officer at UWIHARP, and entitled, CHAOS! (The Condom, HIV and Other STIs Prevention Fair), the fair was designed to promote sexual responsibility and informed decision making among toward University students and staff members. UWIHARP and a cohort of their dedicated peer educators from the student association UWIHARP Cave Hill Association of Peer Training, Education and Outreach (CHAPTER), partnered with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance’s animators; and the young leaders with the Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM) of the Barbados Family Planning Association to provide information on HIV and common sexually transmitted infections in an interactive, informal, youth friendly way. UWIHARP also joined forces with some of the leading condom distributors in Barbados, notably: Brydens Distributors, (the agents for LIFESTYLES), Stokes and Bynoe (DUREX), and Armstrong Agencies (SLAM and RESPECT) with the aim of debunking the tainted image of condom use among couples, as well as showcasing the wide range of condoms available on the local market, while promoting consistent and correct condom use.
UWIHARP introduced the concept of a ‘Condom Fairy’, and worked with one of Cave Hill’s popular young, male students, Mikhael Dulal-Sealy, to publicize the event on the day among the student population. UWIHARP also worked closely with the incoming President of the Guild, Damian Belgrave to host the event in the Students’ Union. Approximately 150 students and staff members attended the fair and some of the remarks from the participants included: ‘this is a really good idea’ and ‘you guys (UWIHARP) should do this again next Semester’.
Another initiative on the same theme, also in Barbados is Ev-O!-lution (O!). Caribbean Lifestyle Entrepreneur, Juliette Maughan, recently established this social enterprise with the aim of promoting healthy, open and non-judgmental attitudes around female sexuality, common sexual practices and safe sex. The tag line, “Safe, Guilt-free, Pleasure” reinforces the approach that explores healthy sexual attitudes and safe sex practices in a risqué and playful way. O! operates on the philosophy that a sexually confident, educated and empowered woman takes charge of her own sexual evolution.
In Barbados and the Caribbean, there is a disconnect between the pleasurable side of sex and sexuality and the messages of risk and fear associated with safe sex education. O! seeks to bridge that gap. Though initially highlighted in social media platforms, the enterprise will be hosting events and offering products and services in partnership with other businesses and organisations that focus on human sexuality. Through use of videos and other multi-media tools, it seeks to encourage dialogue and exploration around how safe sex is not only fun, but also erotic.