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On the Recepticle Tip

Today they come in a dazzling assortment of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors. Their history can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where a rudimentary linen sheath was believed to provide its wearer with protection from certain insects and diseases. Later, the Chinese would employ oiled silk paper, the Japanese would explore leather and tortoiseshell, and the Romans would experiment with goat bladders. It was with the discovery of the sap of a South American rainforest tree that modern condom technology would emerge to provide protection against disease and allow for today’s wild displays of product diversity. This simple device, when used correctly, remains our best means to prevent the sexual transmission of disease on St. Valentine’s Day, or any other day of the year.

The evolution of condom technology was fostered by two concerns: prevention of pregnancy and prevention of disease. Through time, these concerns flip-flopped in predominance as contraception alternatives became available and sexually transmitted disease epidemics waxed and waned.

Back in the 16th century, Europe was rocked by a major syphilis epidemic. While the understanding of the disease was rather rudimentary at the time, it was easily observed and understood that the disease was transmitted through sex. One of the earliest written accounts of condom use in disease prevention can be found in Gabriel Falloppio’s 1564 book Morbo Gallico, where the Italian doctor recommended a linen sheath drenched in a solution of salts and herbs as protection against syphilis.

Over the next two centuries sheep and goat gut would emerge as preferred materials for condoms. These early condoms were often tied onto the penis with a ribbon and reused, sometimes showing up as another drying item dangling from the family clothesline. We’ve come a long way, baby.

The modern latex condom has its roots back in 1735, when French scientist and Amazon explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine journeyed along Venezuela’s Upper Orinoco River and encountered native people collecting sap from rubber trees. He observed and described how they formed and dried the sap to make containers. One hundred and four years later, Charles Goodyear came up with a process to strengthen this natural rubber and make it more elastic. The early condoms produced from Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber were thick with bold seam lines. They provided a level of sensitivity equivalent to wearing rubber from a tire tube.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, so did domestic condom development. In 1883, Julius Schmidt took skills he’d honed making perfume-bottle caps out of lamb gut and applied them to capping the penises of his fellow Americans. His efforts led to the first commercial production of lamb-gut condoms in this country under the Sheik and Ramses trade names.

Refinement of condom technology continued into the 20th century. As rubber-manufacturing techniques evolved, Merle Leland Youngs jumped into the fledgling condom industry. In 1920, Youngs began using latex rubber to manufacture Trojan condoms. Trojans would soon come to dominate the American condom market. Research would later confirm that the latex condom had a disease prevention advantage over the lamb-gut variety, which some viruses could pass through. With the development of a wide selection of effective pregnancy-prevention options in the second half of the 20th century, condom use and production went into a decline.

In the 1980s, the latex-condom industry was suddenly revitalized with the arrival of the HIV epidemic. Condoms were soon recognized as an effective means to prevent the transmission of HIV. They were relatively cheap to produce, could be quickly distributed and, if used correctly, could also prevent the spread of the human papillomavirus (associated with cervical cancer) and other sexually transmitted infections. According to research published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, people who use latex condoms face risks for HIV infection that are 10,000 times less than those faced by those who do not use such condoms.

However, a recently published study of about 800 sexually active, unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 24 led by Dr. Diane Civic of the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle reported that 44 percent of the women surveyed risked disease transmission or pregnancy due to improper condom use. The study’s findings were most alarming for those women who used condoms as their primary mode of contraception, with 59 percent reporting that they had waited until after an initial penetration from their partner’s penis before unrolling the wrapper. Such behavior puts women at risk for exposure to pre-ejaculate fluids that may contain both viruses and sperm. The men involved were also putting themselves at greater risk for disease exposure. Effective condom use needs to begin a safe distance from any body orifice.

While no means of protection can be 100 percent effective (except abstinence), there is some mighty impressive research supporting the disease prevention possible through condom use. In one study of couples where one partner was HIV positive, it was found that correct and consistent condom use resulted in no new infections from vaginal or anal sex during the 20 months of the research. A comparison group where condom use was inconsistent found that 10 percent of the uninfected partners became infected during the study period.

So, for this St. Valentine’s Day and the days beyond, be sure the love you share is safely wrapped. In this world of epidemics, such precaution benefits us all. No glove, no love. Keep it safe!

—Tom Nattell

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