Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
In Africa, many sex educators use what has become known as the ABC strategy to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention. There are three components to the strategy: Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Condoms. In this series, Clarisse Thorn, an American sex educator now working in Southern Africa, writes about each component in turn, talking about its significance in her work and her own sexuality. In part one, she discussed Abstinence and part two covered Be Faithful.
In America, the common argument against explicit sex education—and promoting condom use in schools—is that it will encourage kids to be promiscuous. The idea is that if we portray it as normal for kids to be having sex and tell them how to do it safely, they'll be more likely to go and have sex. As for the kids who'll have sex anyway... well, they're sinning and don't deserve to know what they're doing.
Some things don't change, even across oceans. I occasionally hear the same arguments against promoting condom use in southern Africa. But here, HIV is ripping the populace to pieces, and it's much harder to speak against condoms when funeral processions wind through your neighborhood every weekend. Occasional religious educators claim that promoting condom usage waters down their message and therefore makes anti-HIV education less effective; but even most churches I've encountered take a pragmatic, condom-promoting approach. Indeed, one of the best HIV curricula I've seen so far is the "Channels of Hope" workshop, created by the Christian organization World Vision and designed to train church groups. It not only promotes explicit condom education, but urges compassion towards sex workers and homosexuals. And it discusses why marital rape isn't okay! I'd venture to say that the majority of liberal, secular sex education curricula in the USA aren't as awesome.
Just the other day, I was surveying a bunch of kids aged 11-13 and they asked how to put on a condom. Cursing myself silently, I had to admit that I didn't have any to show them... at which point one child dashed from the room and returned minutes later bearing both a condom, and a rather splintery stick from a firewood pile. Condom distribution is in full swing; I can think of three places to pick up free condoms within a ten-minute walk from where I'm seated. Condoms are described in kids' textbooks, and condom demonstrations are welcome in every school. Condoms are lauded by politicians, pop icons, and religious leaders. Take any person off the street and they'll know the HIV-prevention mantra: ABC—Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms. Yet condom usage rates are still killingly low.
Though I'm fishbelly-pale, I'm not great at wearing sunscreen, and I live in Africa. I try... I mean, I kinda try... I mean it's so annoying to apply, and it feels gross! And this notwithstanding the fact that I literally have ten bottles of top-quality, non-sticky, oil-free sunscreen sitting across the room from me as I type this. On the other hand, I religiously take my malaria prophylactic pill; I've noticed no side effects, and getting malaria would really suck.
I recall one recurring conversation between myself and a former boyfriend, whom I dated for years. We'd both had excellent sex education, and yet we used withdrawal as our primary birth-control method. We did it even though we both had boxes of condoms available. We did it even though neither of us wanted me to get pregnant, and—though I'm definitely pro-choice—I wasn't sure I could bring myself to have an abortion. We'd both been tested, and we trusted each other not to cheat, but that's some dangerous trust to extend—and we knew it.
One particular moment comes to mind: we were lying lazily in bed together, talking about how stupid we were.
"We should be more careful," he said seriously.
"We really should," I agreed.
"Let's be more careful," he suggested.
Were we stupid? Obviously. Were we normal? Unfortunately, yes. A few months ago, I chatted with another American HIV educator about the situation here in Africa. "They know to use condoms," she complained, "and they have the condoms! I just don't get it!"
"I agree that it's incomprehensible," I said, "but hey, I haven't always been 100% careful, and I'm a sex educator."
She glanced at me, then away. "Yeah, I haven't either," she admitted. There was a gloomy pause, and then we couldn't help it—we cracked up. "I hate love," she said when the giggles subsided. She shook her head. "That shit fucks with you."