Big surprise: Kinsey study underscores that condoms only mitigate harm, don’t erase it

Msnbc.com reports that a recent study by the Kinsey Institute has revealed improper condom use is rampant worldwide, and that because of this “improper use” condoms very frequently do not adequately protect against unwanted pregnancy and STDs.  Interestingly, unlike previous studies that have attempted to quantify consistency of condom use, meaning how often the “problem” with this method was that a condom wasn’t used at all, this study explored what the researchers deemed “errors and problems” that occurred when couples attempted to use a condom, but experienced a failure of protection anyway.

The current study was a review of prior research, and both the study and the media report reiterate what many people already know: with “proper use” (apparently meaning perfect adherence to at least 14 criteria with every instance of intercourse) condoms are effective against unwanted pregnancy some 98% of the time, which is already far, far too risky to make even “protected” intercourse worthwhile for girls and women.  (That rate of failure means that in a year of perfect use, 2 out of 100 women using condoms as birth control will get pregnant anyway.  2 out of 100 condom-using women every year, year after year.  And how many millions of women are using condoms worldwide, whether correctly, or incorrectly?)

And taking into account several common “errors” as well as inconsistent use the effectiveness rate drops to around 85%, depending on the source.  That means that 15 out of every 100 women who are using condoms incorrectly (otherwise known as “typical use”) will become impregnated, every year, against their wills.  Whether that’s in addition to the unfortunate 2 out of 100 annually who were doing absolutely everything right and also become impregnated against their wills anyway, is unclear.  And the “failure rate” regarding STDs appears to be unknown.

From the article:

Condoms can’t prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease if they’re used incorrectly. Unfortunately, a new review of research finds that condom use errors are all too common.

Some of the most frequent mistakes include putting a condom on partway through intercourse or taking it off before intercourse is over, failing to leave space at the tip of the condom for semen, and failing to look for damage before use.

Mistakes?  This is what we are calling “putting a condom on partway through intercourse or taking it off before” it’s over?  A mistake?  And who is making that kind of mistake, and who would even be able to accomplish that, mid-act, logistically speaking?  Both women and men reported experiencing this type of “error,” but is it women who are taking condoms off of men’s penises “midway through” the act, otherwise known as before the man ejaculates into her reproductive tract, and then finishing anyway, otherwise known as continuing until the man climaxes?  Or are men doing that?  Unfortunately, the language used is sex-neutral, so we are never told whether, in penile-vaginal intercourse, it’s the women or the men that are deliberately exposing their partners to STDs and leaving women vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy.  But we can all venture a guess.

An analysis of all 50 studies found a laundry list of reported errors in condom use. For example, between 17 percent and 51.1 percent of people queried in the studies said they’d put on a condom partway through intercourse — negating any disease-controlling benefits, since fluids are exchanged throughout intercourse not just during ejaculation. Other studies found that between 1.5 percent and 24.8 percent of sexual experiences involved putting a condom on too late in the process of intercourse.

Mistakes and errors, that, in penile-vaginal intercourse, are more likely to put women than men in danger of STD transmission; and are likely to put women and only women at risk for pregnancies that are unwanted by the woman.

Oops!  My bad!  A mistake, like that time I put salt in my coffee instead of sugar, wasn’t that funny?  Haha!  Ah well, no big deal.

Besides “late application” and “early removal” there are 12 more common “errors and problems” that reduce condoms’ effectiveness against unwanted pregnancy and disease transmission:

3. Unrolling a condom before putting it on: Between 2.1 percent and 25.3 percent of people reported completely unrolling a condom before putting it on.

4. No space at the tip: Failing to leave a reservoir for semen was reported by between 24.3 percent and 45.7 percent of respondents, depending on the study.

5. Failing to remove air: Almost half (48.1 percent) of women and 41.6 percent of men reported sexual encounters in which air wasn’t squeezed from the tip of the condom.

6. Inside-out condoms: Between 4 percent and 30.4 percent of people reported rolling on a condom inside out and then flipping it the other way around, potentially exposing their partner to bodily fluids.

7. Failing to unroll all the way: 11.2 percent of women and 8.8 percent of men had started intercourse before a condom was unrolled all the way.

8. Exposure to sharp objects: Between 2.1 percent and 11.2 percent of people had opened condom packets with sharp objects or otherwise exposed the latex to tearing.

9. Not checking for damage: Meanwhile, 82.7 percent of women and 74.5 percent of men failed to check condoms for damage before use.

10. No lubrication: Between 16 percent and 25.8 percent of participants had used condoms without lubrication, increasing the risk of a break.

11. Wrong lubrication: In about 4.1 percent of sexual events, people used oil-based lubrications with latex, which can degrade the condom. About 3.2 percent of women and 4.7 percent of men reported this error.

12. Incorrect withdrawal: Failing to promptly and properly withdraw after ejaculation was a common mistake, occurring in up to 57 percent of encounters in one study. About 31 percent of men and 27 percent of women reported this error.

13. Condom reuse:  Between 1.4 percent and 3.3 percent of study respondents had re-used a condom at least twice during a sexual encounter.

14. Incorrect storage: Between 3.3 percent and 19.1 percent of people in the studies had stored condoms in conditions outside of the recommendations on the package.

Checking for damage before use?  Really?  If that’s part of “proper use” then how many couples have ever used a condom properly?  And how many women were really in the 85%-effectiveness range when they were having PIV, when they thought they were in the 98%?  Just about every single woman, and just about every single time, judging by these numbers.  And those were the women whose partners used condoms at all.  It’s sickening to think about.  What does seem clear, though, is that the 98%-effectiveness rate — and the 85% effectiveness rate, for that matter — is just a number, and doesn’t mean much more than “if you are going to engage in dangerous PIV-centric sexuality anyway, you are better off at least trying to use a condom correctly than not even trying to use one at all.”  If that doesn’t make anyone feel that much better, that’s a good thing, because it shouldn’t.

This is the language of damage-control (aka. harm-mitigation) only, and these damage-control rituals do not eliminate the risk of PIV and the PIV-as-sex paradigm for girls and women.  The risks to girls and women of STDs and unwanted pregnancy are, despite what we are told to believe, very serious problems that have not been remedied, and probably cannot be remedied, although everyone talks about them as if they are non-issues, whether the discussion centers barrier methods (like condoms) or the even-more-effective-if-used-properly (but still not 100% effective) hormonal methods like the Pill.  These problems remain, but we aren’t allowed to discuss it.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s *not* that it benefits girls and women to do it the way we are doing it.

It’s because it clearly benefits boys and men to talk around the harms of PIV this way — as essentially non-issues, or problems that can be completely avoided, when clearly that’s not the case — boys and men who have everything to gain from deliberately damaging and controlling girls and women with PIV, through terror, trauma-bonding, and medical events; and where men have designed their patriarchal institutions — particularly religion, medicine, and law — to attach to women’s bodies at the moment of conception, in ways that these institutions never attach to men and men’s lives.

And the so-called “sex-researchers” and the work of prior researchers they rely on, who use sex-neutral language in their studies, and in this case never revealing who was removing the condom early or not putting it on until it was too late for example, only obscure the issues of intention and harm, including who is deliberately harming whom, and why.  And while it might be tempting to interpret these slights as evidence that “sex” is or can be observed in the absence of “sexual politics,” if that’s ever the case, that is clearly not the case here, where the researchers could’ve collected and analyzed their data in a way that didn’t obscure certain realities, and support the status quo.  They just chose not to.  In their own discussion following the study, the researchers admit that

Participant-level analyses may help identify people experiencing multiple episodes of breakage or any other problem or error who may benefit from intensified intervention efforts.

Indeed.  In this case, they could’ve asked who insisted that the condom not be put on until midway through, or who removed it, and just kept going.  But they didn’t.  Whether other researchers pick up on this issue specifically and explore it further remains to be seen.

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