Rubbers, raincoats, preventatives, jimmy caps — you could spend hours recalling the various nicknames assigned to that trusty bedside companion, the condom. But while everyone knows a million names for the prophylactic, most people don’t know — or at least never considered — that the carefully wrapped cylinder that may or may not be in your back pocket hasn’t always been made of latex.
In fact, using rubber to make rubbers started only in the 1920s. That means for centuries, our forefathers had to be extremely creative when creating a “barrier,” so to speak. So what exactly did they use?
“Probably the most unusual condom was one that Roman soldiers would make out of the muscles of the conquered,” said Aine Collier, author of “The Humble Little Condom,” a recently published history of the prophylactic. “It was to prove prowess on the battlefield and in sex.
“The medievals wove she-mules’ fur into condoms,” she continued, “and they believed it had magical qualities. I think it just probably itched. One pope designed a kind of liquid, lead-like material that the man had to dip his member into.”
In fact, over the years, people tried all kinds of materials to both prevent getting diseases and avoid pregnancy, including silk, fish bladder, animal intestine, tortoise shells, leather, pomegranates and fur.
“If it could be shaped into that shape, if you will, it could be turned into a condom,” Aine said.
Materials used to make condoms varied, and so did attitudes toward them. Aine pointed out that while some societies felt less negative about prophylactic use than others, at no point were condoms a completely normal part of mainstream culture.
“The first venereal outbreak was in the 1490s, AIDS was in the 1980s, and still we’re using euphemisms,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Indeed, condoms are more common now than at any time in history. Advertisements now run freely on television and in magazines. Sex education, even with the abstinence-only initiative, is taught almost everywhere. And the issue of unexpected pregnancy is omnipresent in pop culture, from Jamie Lynn Spears to “Juno” to “Knocked Up.”
Since everyone knows how important condoms are in preventing pregnancies and the spread of disease, and since they are readily accessible, young people must be using protection every time they have intercourse, right? Not exactly.
“I think most people use condoms most of the time,” said Amber Madison, a former sex columnist at Tufts University and the author of “Hooking Up: A Girl’s All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality.” “The problem is that it doesn’t take that many times not using a condom to end up with an STD. So, even if most people use them most of the time, that’s still leaving a huge window of unprotected sex where you can get an STD.”
To figure out why condoms aren’t used 100 percent of the time, MTV News gathered a small group of young people to have a candid, unscientific chat. While no one was especially eager to cop to their own condom-less sexual experiences, they did shed some light on the habits of their “friends.”
Ori Sosnik, a senior at Columbia University, said, “I know from my personal experience and the experience of my friends, when people don’t use condoms, it’s not because they don’t have the incentive, it’s not because they can’t afford or don’t have access to condoms. They don’t use one because they forgot to bring one and they still want to have sex, or they’re drunk and they didn’t really think to pull the condom out of their pocket.”
“I really think it’s because people feel [sexually transmitted diseases] are treatable, that the risk of dying of [STDs] has decreased,” said Rebecca Standig, a Columbia freshman.
“A lot of people won’t use a condom if they say that the person that they’re sleeping with is, like, clean or seems like a good person,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they say.”
While everyone we spoke with guaranteed they used condoms most of the time, the combination of impaired judgment from booze or other substances, combined with less fear of death or lifelong ailments from STDs, seems to allow condom-less intercourse to occur.
“People just think it won’t happen to them,” said Teemorrie Taylor, an MTV production intern.
But, unfortunately, it is happening to them. “Chlamydia is at a record high, over 1 million cases this year,” said Dr. Frank Spinelli, author of “The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness.” “[With] gonorrhea, we did see it drop a little bit, but now it’s spiked up again, and now we have this super-bug, which is resistant to certain antibiotics.” The New York Times recently reported that rates of HIV infections among young gay men are “shooting up.”
Dr. Spinelli is quick to point out that part of the reason for these spikes is that more individuals are actually being tested. Nonetheless, the lack of condom use among today’s young people still surprises him.
“Every woman and every guy, when you are going out to clubs, should have a condom in their purse or wallet,” he said. “It was a rule when I was in high school. You always have a condom with you just in case.”
The consensus among the informal group assembled by MTV News is that as long as someone mentions the word “condom” — or even just pulls one out — it gets used.
“A real problem I find with condom use is that girls think, ‘If I carry a condom, and then end up sleeping with a guy, that’s premeditated sex,’ ” Madison said. “Whereas instead, if you don’t carry a condom then, ‘Oh, I wasn’t preparing to have sex. If it happened, whoops, but at least I didn’t plan it.’ You know, it’s not first-degree sex.”
In our group of three guys and three girls, not one was carrying a condom at the time of our discussion.
Each seemed to have his or her own theories on why there is still a lapse in condom use in their generation, from more girls being on birth control to the Bush administration’s policies on sex education, but they did agree that the more condom use becomes ingrained in society, fewer accidents will occur.
“Since I can remember, my dad always told me to use a condom, like, since I was young,” Taylor said. “And the fact that I knew that if I came home with a girl who was pregnant, they would kick my ass.”