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The Talk: Don’t Believe the Rumors About Free NYC Condoms
Sex Ed
Sex Advice Column

“Condoms make good balloons,” a girl giggled as she sat around a table with two fellow New Youth Connections interns. They’d ripped through the now-iconic black package with “NYC” colorfully emblazoned on the front and were blowing the contraceptives up into oddly shaped balloons. I asked why they were wasting so many condoms. “People say the free city condoms don’t work. My friend told me that her friend got pregnant using them, so we might as well make them into balloons,” she explained.

I’d heard rumors that the free condoms were unreliable, too, and wondered if it was true. Were the free condoms—which are distributed all over the city and in many high schools—of worse quality than the brand name condoms you buy in the store? I started investigating by calling the city’s Department of Health, which provides and distributes the free condoms.

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Same Rubber, New Wrapper

“Everyone needs to know up front that these are standard condoms with a different wrapper,” said Dr. Monica Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the city Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control. The free NYC condoms are standard Lifestyles or Durex condoms with better packaging. “It’s a condom that we stand by and we’ve tested and retested and retested,” Sweeney added.

But you don’t have to take her word for it. Just last year Consumer Reports, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, tested 20 different kinds of latex condoms and found that Lifestyles and Durex brands ranked highly. (The particular models that earned a perfect score were Lifestyles Ultra Sensitive Lubricated; Lifestyles Warming Pleasure; Durex Performax; Trojan Her Pleasure Ecstasy; Trojan Magnum Lubricated; Trojan Ultra Ribbed Ecstasy; and Trojan Ultra Thin.)

In rigorous lab tests, in which thousands of condoms were inflated with air to test strength and submerged in salt water to test for leaks, researchers found that “all of the condoms, with one exception, are a fine choice.” That one exception—the only one that failed their tests—was the Night Light brand glow-in-the-dark condom.

I was surprised to learn that the city has actually been giving out condoms for decades, since 1971. “It was just going along until 2007, when we branded it the ‘NYC condom’” and gave it an artful new wrapper, Sweeney said. The campaign spurred demand—the city’s average condom distribution increased from about 500,000 a month to 3 million a month over the last few years—but it also prompted the rumors.

Online Debates

image by Edwin Yang

A rash of online articles about the newly repackaged condoms ran in 2008. Their effectiveness was debated in the articles’ comments sections:

“Dude, I used four of these things last year and three of them broke. I wouldn’t trust them, friends,” one commenter wrote on Gothamist.com. (This guy must have been using scissors to open the package, because a 75% failure rate is unheard of.)

But another reader, identified as Jibbly, countered: “I’m not afraid to admit it: They’re free, they work, and there aren’t any baby Jibblys running around Union Hall.”

Similar debates erupted on The Lede, a New York Times blog, and several other sites.

If testing shows that the condoms are good quality and not prone to breaking, why were these rumors so prevalent?

User Error

“It’s very easy for something to go from person to person based on hearsay,” Sweeney said. “But I am sure—this is a substantiated fact—that we supply the best standard of condom available anywhere. The thing is that, especially among teenagers, the most common cause for condom failure is how a condom is used. If someone doesn’t know how to put it on correctly, it can be ineffective,” she continued.

I looked up the effectiveness of condoms generally and found out that, each year, 2 out of 100 women get pregnant with perfect use, which means their partners correctly use a condom every single time they have sex. But in typical use—the more realistic standard in which couples may not put the condom on in time—about 15 out of 100 women end up pregnant after a year of sex with condoms. That number is probably even higher for teens who are still learning how to use contraceptives. (See the sidebar for tips on correct use.)

image by YC-Art Dept

Learning how to use a condom correctly is up to the user, but the city encourages anyone who feels that they got a bum condom to file a complaint by calling 311 or e-mailing condoms@health.nyc.gov.

In the last three years, the city has received 75 complaints about the free condoms but, surprisingly, the major issue wasn’t breakage. It was about the size of the condoms. “People find them too small, so we’re making some that are extra large,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney wasn’t too concerned about whether teens use the NYC brand or another brand. “The goal is to decrease the number of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Whatever condom brand you want to use, as long as you’re using a condom, is fine.” That is, as long it’s not the glow-in-the-dark kind.


Don’t Slip Up!

A few tips to prevent breakage or slippage:

• Use lubricant on unlubricated condoms.

• Don’t ever use two condoms at the same time.

• Change to a new condom halfway through if you have prolonged and vigorous sex.

• After sex but before the penis becomes soft, hold the base of the condom and pull your penis out of your partner so nothing spills.

• Don’t store condoms in your wallet or back pocket where the temperature and humidity can damage them.

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(NYC-2010-02-15b)