The Truth About Condoms

Several people on the LetsTalk board have posted messages claiming that condoms are unsafe and that sex education is ineffective in preventing disease and unwanted pregnancy. They are wrong, and it's time to set the record straight.

It's important to know where people's "facts" come from so that you can verify them and judge the trustworthiness of the source. So, for information on condom reliability, let's see what the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention -- a department of the US government) really has to say.

Below are quotes from CDC brochures:

There have been recent reports of naturally occurring holes in latex that are big enough for HIV to pass through. Why does CDC still recommend condoms to prevent HIV infection?

The reports of holes in latex appear to have originated from an article in Science Magazine about latex gloves, not condoms. Holes as large as 5 microns in diameter were evidently identified in latex used in gloves. However, gloves are only dipped in latex once when they are made, condoms are dipped twice in latex. Gloves are allowed to fail the water leak test at a rate of 40 per thousand, while condoms are only allowed 4 failures of the water leak test per thousand condoms before the entire batch is rejected. While holes large enough for HIV to pass through have been found in natural membrane condoms, latex condoms do not allow the HIV to pass through the condom unless the condom has been damaged or torn. Used properly, latex condoms are effective in reducing the risk of HIV infection.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS Prevention Training Bulletin, July 1, 1992.)

1.Can HIV leak through microscopic holes in latex condoms?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a study in the July-August 1992 issue of "STD" which examined whether HIV-sized glass beads could be forced through latex condoms under stressful laboratory conditions. These conditions included higher concentrations of the "virus" (glass beads) than in semen, a fluid that doesn't stick together as much as semen, and forces that simulated 10 minutes of thrusting AFTER ejaculation. Most latex condoms leaked absolutely nothing. The worst condom found would still reduce exposure risk by 10,000-fold, i.e., only 1 HIV virus might "leak" through only 1 of every 90 condoms. Other tests have shown that under "normal" conditions, HIV does not pass through a latex condom that is not torn or broken.

2.How often do condoms break?

The studies do not agree on an exact rate of breakage. Many studies of condom effectiveness have counted how often women whose partners used condoms for birth control have gotten pregnant. This "failure rate" includes cases where the couple did not use a condom every time they had sex or used the condoms incorrectly. Some studies have included the times the condom was torn accidently by the people using it. Studies in other countries of breakage caused by defects in the condom itself show a breakage rate ranging from 0% to 7%. In the United States, most studies show the breakage rate is less than 2 out of every 100 condoms, probably less than 1 out of every 100.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS Prevention Training Bulletin, January 28, 1993.)

Studies have shown that condoms are 98% effective when used correctly. (J. Trussel et al. "Contraceptive Failure in the United States: An Update," Studies of Family Planning, 21(1), 1990.) (Other studies show even better effectiveness) So if you are having sex, use a condom, and learn how to use it correctly -- there are instructions on our site: http://www.positive.org/JustSayYes/safesex.html .

Now, about sex education: no scientific study has ever proved the effectiveness of abstinence based sex ed. In fact, three studies have shown that abstinence based education has no effect on whether teens have sex. (S. Christopher and M. Roosa, "An Evaluation of an Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program: Is 'Just Say No' Enough?" Family Relations, 39 (1990): 68-72; M. Roosa and S. Christopher, "Evaluation of an Abstinence-only Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program: A Replication," Family Relations, 39 (1990); 363-367; and S. R. Jorgensen, V. Potts, and B. Camp, "Project Taking Charge: Six-month Follow-up of a Pregnancy Prevention Program for Early Adolescents," Family Relations, 42 (1993): 401-06.)

On the other hand, there is convincing evidence that "comprehensive" or "reality-based" education (the kind that we advocate and distribute) is effective. Countries like England, Wales, France, and the Netherlands all have nationally mandated "reality-based" sex ed and although the rates of sexual activity are about the same (50-60%), the rates of pregnancy are two to seven times lower! (E. F. Jones et al., "Teenage pregnancy in developed countries: determinants and policy implications." FAMILY PLANNING PERSPECTIVES, 17(2), 1985, 53-63.)

So why are people on the BBS claiming that the exact opposite is true? It's hard to say; but I do know that there are a bunch of very conservative and fanatically religious people who are spreading lies about safe sex and sex education in an effort to impose their morals on everyone else with no regard for the catastrophic consequences to our "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Fight back with the facts.

You can get more information about these topics in your library or on the web. Here are some good places to look:


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