Condoms anonymous

November 19, 2009

Trekking to class a few weeks ago, my condom supply as depleted as my bank account, I was thrilled to spot the H*yas for Choice table in Red Square. I was psyching myself up for my free rubber restock, when I recognized the male figure standing squarely in front of the giant jar of condoms, chatting with the girl manning the table. Let’s just say that he was one of my more dubious decisions from freshman year.

As I crossed the thirty or so feet separating me from that mecca of free contraceptives, I had a furious internal debate about how to proceed. My rational side stuck to the facts: I was in desperate need of Durex, and this was the most convenient chance to acquire some before the weekend. But my innate awkwardness-avoidance was already in overdrive, imagining just how lame my sure-to-be-stammered request for a couple condoms would sound, envisioning mutually averted eyes, calculating just how red my cheeks would turn.

I ended up walking past the table without stopping. I continued on to class, still condom-less, kicking myself for my cowardice.

Initially, I was confused about the source of this latent discomfort. I consider myself a staunchly sex-positive feminist. Coming from a Reform Jewish household, I don’t have any religious hang-ups about sex. I was even fortunate enough to be spared the truly stultifying abstinence-only sex education programs. And it wasn’t necessarily the guy—I have no problem exchanging pleasantries with him when we run into each other on campus in non-condom-related contexts.

As I thought about it, I began to realize that my visits to the HFC table always make me somewhat uncomfortable. As happy as I always am to see their jaunty purple banner—and as grateful as I am for the community service they provide—I always need to mentally brace myself a bit before heading over to take a few condoms off their hands.

I tend to quickly scope out the surroundings, hoping to see a minimal number of friends, acquaintances, and professors. I’m never quite sure about the proper etiquette. Is an explicit request or some small talk expected, or is it acceptable to just reach in and take a few as you stroll by? I usually go with the grab-and-go approach, but even this more discreet method sometimes makes me feel like I have a neon “I’M SEXUALLY ACTIVE” sign hovering over my head.

Although our generation grew up in the post-AIDS era, in which the condom is primarily a health protection tool, contraceptives are still surrounded by a certain stigma, especially for women. A recent study of sex education in the D.C. Public Schools system found that, for the most part, girls are uncomfortable about carrying condoms with them because they “are afraid that they will be judged as promiscuous by others.”

I’m not the only Georgetown student uncomfortable about stocking up on condoms in full view of their peers and professors. According to HFC President Heather Brock (COL ’10), who has been tabling for the group since her freshman year, there are always quite a few “drive-by” patrons. The club also has more than 20 “Condom Captains,” HFC members who hang envelopes full of condoms on their dorm room doors, allowing for more convenient, and less conspicuous, condom pick-ups.

Brock said that when she started tabling over three years ago, she saw mostly guys taking advantage of the free condoms. More recently, however, she has seen more and more girls frequenting the table. She estimated that the current customer ratio is about 60 percent male and 40 percent female. HFC Treasurer Alex Miller (COL ‘11) said that she typically sees quite a few “bros” take condoms, bragging about how many they need, but girls rarely come by the table.  Miller thinks this is another symptom of the infamous double standard that brands sexually active guys as studs while sexually active girls are sluts.

In a way, it’s natural to be uneasy about procuring your prophylactics so publicly. In doing so, you’re inherently acknowledging something about your private life—that you’re sexually active—in a public context. But the crumbing divide between private and public is all the more difficult to cope with, thanks to the uncertainty about what the strangers circulating in Red Square believe about premarital sex.

“Especially on a campus where there’s such a divide about contraception and premarital sex, you don’t know what other professors or students who are walking through Red Square are thinking,” Brock said. “No one wants to be judged or slut-shamed.”

But some things are too important to risk over the fear of social stigma, and sexual health and unintended pregnancy definitely fall into that category. Anyone who’s sexually active has a responsibility to make sure they’re protected—potentially judgmental strangers and embarrassing encounters with former hook-ups be damned.

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