safe sex

The oldest illustration of a condom was found in Egypt and dates back more than 3,000 years. It is difficult to judge from the drawing what the ancient Egyptian wearing the condom had in mind. He may have worn it for sexual or ritual reasons, or both.

But it's commonly reckoned that the first condoms were made from dried sheep's intestines and used by Roman soldiers to protect themselves from disease while "mixing with the natives" on long marches away from home. Over the following 1,500 years or so, various accounts exist of condoms being made from materials as diverse as linen and animal gut.

Some say that a courtier of King Charles II invented the condom in the 1600's and it is claimed that the great womaniser, Casanova, was a condom user. The first documented manufacture of the condom, as we know it today is attributed to Goodyear and Hancock, in the 1840's, who invented the vulcanisation process.

The oldest condoms were found in the foundations of Dudley Castle near Birmingham, England. They were made of fish and animal intestine and dated back to 1640. They were probably used to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections during the war between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and soldiers loyal to King Charles I.

Historians disagree about how condoms got their name. Some say a “Dr. Condom” supplied King Charles II of England with animal-tissue sheaths to keep him from fathering illegitimate children and getting diseases from prostitutes. Others claim the word comes from a “Dr. Condon” or a “Colonel Cundum.” It may be more likely that the word derives from the Latin condom, meaning “receptacle.” In the 18th century, the famous womaniser, Casanova, wore condoms made of linen.

Rubber condoms were mass-produced after 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanisation of rubber, which he invented five years earlier. Condoms made of sheep’s intestines are still available. They are now disposable and should only be used once. In the 1940s and 50s, they were washed, slathered in petroleum jelly, and kept in little wooden boxes in a bedroom drawer, but they weren’t talked about, in front of the kids, anyway.

By World War II, military leaders had a more realistic attitude about condoms. Concerned that “our boys” would bring home diseases and infect their wives, they aggressively promoted the use of condoms. Government training films urged soldiers, “Don’t forget-put it on before you put it in.”

The sexual revolution of the 60s almost put an end to condom use. “Good girls” were willing sex partners, so fewer men turned to professional sex workers, the most prevalent STIs -gonorrhoea and syphilis- were easily treated, and the Pill and IUD provided the most effective reversible contraception the world had seen.

When HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, was identified, it became clear that condom use and safer sex could stem the epidemic. Many public health professionals believe that local, state, and federal governments behave a lot like the social hygienists of the World War I generation as they continue to ignore or deny the need for public condom education. At this point in the epidemic, 25 percent of all HIV infections occur among teenagers - with rates increasing most quickly for teenage women. Yet most school districts still oppose condom distribution among students.

There is an obvious need for a massive, public health condom education campaign. Yet major broadcasting companies typically refuse to air condom ads, and most school districts across the country not only refuse to distribute condoms, they also refuse to provide responsible, reality-based sexuality and AIDS education. Medical professionals and health advocates watch in dismay as history repeats itself, and the promotion of condom use remains a public health controversy.