Condomologist

all things condoms

Condom Labeling

Posted by Condomologist on March 30, 2009

News out of Canada has prominent researchers advocating for stricter and more accurate labeling on condom packaging to better convey the effectiveness/failure rates of condoms. They make a fair point in that condoms do break and their effectiveness varies according to many different factors, including correct usage, damaged latex, consistency of use, and — if their assumptions are correct, which is entirely possible — the quality of the particular brand or style being used. They also make the fair point that effectiveness/failure rates are typically based on studies done involving pregnancy, meaning how many women of out of 100 will get pregnant over the course of one year, and not STDs and HIV. And further complicating matters is the fact that some STDs are transmitted via fluids and other by skin-to-skin contact, so condoms’ effectiveness in preventing, say, herpes (skin-to-skin) differs from HIV (fluids).

But I’m curious what exact figures they would choose to put on the packaging, and how in the world would they make sense of the many contradictory studies which vary wildly in their conclusions about how effective condoms are. And the larger problem is that percentages and figures are not easily deduced from studies, because this research cannot be done in a laboratory. Pretty much all figures are based on self-reporting, which complicates things greatly. It’s incredibly difficult to decipher the numbers. If one partner is HIV+ and other HIV- and a study shows, as one of the researchers notes, 20% of those uninfected will contract HIV even when using condoms (I’m not sure which study she’s referring to, but I assure you other studies will question those numbers), we would have to know which condoms were used, if they were used correctly and every time, if lubricant was also used, if the sex they had was anal or vaginal intercourse, if the previously uninfected partner had another STD which may have made HIV transmission more likely, if the couple used condoms only upon ejaculation, etc. etc. The variables are too many to count. What kind of labeling would they consider important and how would they agree on the data?

The point is that condoms are highly effective in reducing the risk of pregnancy and STD transmission, which is what most condom labeling — at least in the States — already states, although some of my condoms at home do leave out the “highly” and “reducing risk” and simply say they’re “effective against pregnacy and STDs and HIV” — which, to be fair, is a bit misleading. I’m all for being as honest as possible, giving people the information and letting them make an informed decision. But if we get into details about whether a condom is 85% effective or 97% effective, we’re creating a whole new set of questions and concerns and debates that don’t seem to do anyone much good.

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