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Copyright: AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Copyright: AIDS Healthcare Foundation

It’s certainly no accident that Valentine’s Day and International Condom Day are on the same day this year. Year round, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) invests resources to raise awareness about condoms and to prevent HIV transmission. On Valentine’s Day, however, it’s ramping up its message to take advantage of the romantic feelings the commercially driven “holiday” stirs up.

This year AHF will distribute its Love Condoms worldwide. Additionally, its sexual health campaign called Condom Nation will coordinate flash mobs across cities in the U.S. and the globe. The objective of this work will be to distribute free condoms at heavily visited public spaces, to educate people about safer sex, and to reinforce the benefits of using a condom.

They’ll do much of this work by marketing condom use as sexy ‘n cool whenever one chooses to have sex. Marketing condom use as an empowering, sexy and lifesaving choice that can, not only prevent HIV transmission and unintended pregnancies, but also demonstrate love and respect for oneself and a partner, is a good thing. There’s a body of experience that associates effective condom marketing to increased use.

Unfortunately, the creative advocacy event will likely not reach many of the populations that most need, or can act upon, the message that condom use is empowering, lifesaving and sexy. 

Like many other condom-marketing campaigns, this one will reach groups of individuals who are privileged enough to be at the right place, at the right time, and empowered with the information and resources to adopt healthier behaviors. And like many other international days of <insert your cause here>, this one will pass. Despite this, today is yet another opportunity to highlight the importance of addressing the wider realities that affect condom use, and sexual and reproductive health more broadly.

Worldwide, family and community expectations still dictate that sex should take place only among married individuals who are healthy, heterosexual, monogamous, not too young, not too old, and often for the purpose of childbearing. When a person’s sexual activity violates any of these rigid requirements, society makes it more difficult for that person to access family-planning education, methods and services, including condoms.

We cannot ignore that condom promotion continues to be largely synonymous with male condoms and to assume that women and girls are empowered enough in their relationships to negotiate condom use. In fact, millions of women and girls, especially child brides, are usually powerless to negotiate contraceptive use with their (usually older) partners or husbands—even if they have access to comprehensive information and condoms.

For child brides, marriage leads to the initiation of sexual activity during a period when girls know little about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their rights to dictate if, when, and how they have sex.

In these contexts, promoting positive sexual and reproductive health requires more targeted and nuanced efforts. It requires shifting harmful norms that drive the low social status of women. It requires shifting norms that frame men’s sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Global efforts must be national in scale but local in their design to ensure that sexual health campaigns reach the millions of underserved women and girls who face pressures that compromise their independence, health and development. This would do much to make sure that the right to health—to sexual health information and services, including condoms—is less akin to a privilege enjoyed by some, and more a universal right realized by all. And that’s an empowering, lifesaving, and yes, even sexy outcome.