The Devil Wore Condoms  

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's old news now that Rick Warren supports missions in Africa that are let's just say dubious. One of the most ridiculous stories to come out was about a preacher named Martin Ssempa, the head of the Makerere Community Church in Uganda.

Emboldened by U.S. support, Ssempa took his anti-condom crusade to Makerere University in Kampala, where senior residents of a men’s dormitory promoted safe sex by greeting incoming freshmen with a giant effigy wearing a condom. According to Helen Epstein, one day after she visited the school, Ssempa stormed on to campus, tore the condom from the effigy, grabbed a box of free condoms, and set them ablaze. “I burn these condoms in the name of Jesus!” Ssempa shouted as he prayed over the burning box.

I knew that the Catholic church had an issue with condoms. It's something about every sperm being sacred, or some such. However, I had no idea that Evangelicals were against contraception. Or maybe it's just the same old abstinence only educational values that are being promoted here in America. But in college? Aren't adults able to make decisions for themselves?

Why discourage contraception between adult couples, especially in a country suffering from the worst of the AIDS epidemic? Maybe it's just the concept that condoms are bad because they encourage promiscuity. But I'm not certain that's true. After all a recent study found that teenagers in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to engage in sex as those who weren't. And they were more likely to participate in risky behavior such as having sex without a condom.

Imagine that? Actually teach kids about the consequences of their actions and give them enough information to decide and some kids might make the right choice. Some kids won't. And it doesn't matter if you tell them that they shouldn't have sex until marriage. Many still will.

In Africa, where the ABC program in Uganda has been successful in curbing the rise of AIDS occurrences, the abstinence part of the program has been the least effective. Encouraging partner reduction and condom use have been responsible for most of the success.
Unfortunately, however, scientific evaluation and medical surveillance paint a different picture. Studies of Ugandan AIDS prevalence that try to assess the relative contributions of abstinence, multiple-partner reduction, and condom use in lowering infection rates have found that abstinence actually made the smallest contribution, while condoms and partner reduction had the largest impact. David Serwadda, a Ugandan physician who chairs the Global HIV Prevention Working Group, has stated, "As a physician who has been involved in Uganda's response to AIDS for 20 years, I fear that one small part of what led to Uganda's success -- promoting sexual abstinence -- is being overemphasized in policy debates."

So if abstinence is only effective as a policy if paired with education about sex. And yet any discussion about sex is instantly quelled by the ultra-religious. Because, I imagine, it makes them feel uncomfortable. And it's naughty and dirty and wrong.

Which I completely disagree with.

There's nothing dirty or naughty (except maybe in a good, exciting way) about sex and there's certainly nothing wrong about engaging in sex. It's something that we as a society should be more comfortable talking about. I'm not, but I attribute that to growing up in an Evangelical church. But what about all of the people who grew up in non-sexually repressed households? Why are we as a society so afraid of that one subject?

Now I'm not advocating that we tell kids to go at it with abandon. That's not responsible. But to say that sex isn't natural and that everyone should save themselves for marriage, to claim that you give up part of your soul when you have sex, is backwards-Victorian-age-thinking. (Funny isn't it, that it's always the women that are told they must be pure?) Haven't we progressed past this type of thinking?

I'd rather have an honest discussion about sex. About the facts. Not the continued spread of misinformation.

No wonder people have sexual hangups and unattainable expectations about sex. It took me years to get over my own hangups and simply enjoy sex. And I wouldn't wish that on anyone, not even Pat Robertson (who doesn't seem to have a hangup over the use of condoms in Africa, surprisingly enough).

So, please, when people are dying due to unprotected sex, don't tell them that condoms are the devil. Encourage them to do what they can to protect themselves. Tell them that condoms are essential* for safe sex.

*And sometimes social change is essential as well for all of you people who think that Africa is a black hole and there's no reason to help people when there's no noticeable change in their society. Maybe kicking out those backwards values that are encouraged by religion and promoting a culture change would help more than dumping a bunch of money into ineffective programs.

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