Monday, May 4, 2009

Is the Catholic Church Afraid that Condoms May Work?

Recent research into condom use by adolescent males in Nairobi, Kenya, shows that the majority of participants in an online HIV awareness project did not use condoms the first time they had sex (69.9%). About half used a condom the last time they had sex but only one third use condoms most or all of the time.

Over 85% of these respondents were Christian; over two thirds were from middle or high income households; they were all attending secondary school; they were aged over 15 but the average age at first sex was just under 13 years old; nearly three quarters had already had 2 or more sexual partners.

It’s not as if we needed evidence that young people have sex, unsafe sex or sex at a very young age. We can fool ourselves that education is the key to preventing or reducing this sort of behaviour, but we have known for a long time that education on its own has little effect on sexual behaviour. Nor does wealth guarantee later sexual debut or safer sexual behaviour; the contrary may be more accurate.

Those who think that sex education is not appropriate for young people need to bear in mind what age many young people are when they start having sex. If they think sex education is only appropriate for those in their later teens, they will be too late for many.

It is also a mistake to think that children in their early teens do not need to know about condoms. Teenagers who have begun their sex lives without using condoms are less likely to use them later on. But those who use condoms the first time they have sex are more likely to continue doing so on all or most occasions. Learning about safe sex and condoms early on is a good thing.

Teaching children about abstaining from sex or delaying sexual initiation is also a good thing. Those who start sex at a later age are more likely to use condoms and are likely to behave more responsibly if they have received a good sex education. But if you teach children about abstaining from sex you need to tell them what sex is. They need to know many things so this is also a good time to tell them about condoms. They need to know about sex in order to abstain or even delay their sexual debut. If they don’t know much about sex, they will not know what to abstain from of what to delay.

The Catholic Church has a time honoured way of dealing with things that don’t fit its purposes (whether they be doctrinal, political, economic or whatever else): they say nothing or they lie. The church leader’s recent outburst about condoms making the HIV epidemic worse has been treated to amendments by those who surround him and he has done nothing to set the record straight. Perhaps in his eyes the record is already straight.

Since the HIV epidemic started, the Catholic and other Christian churches have done everything possible to frustrate the attempts of health professionals and others to prevent the spread of HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and unwanted pregnancies. They have lied and pontificated about an interpretation of Christian morality that would see people suffer and die rather than ‘sin’. Even those who don’t do the sinning must suffer and die rather than allow ‘sin’ to occur.

Respondents in the survey hold views that are hard to reconcile. Well, who doesn’t hold views that are difficult to reconcile? So, over half believe HIV is a problem in Nairobi, but over 85% believe that their chance of being infected is 50% or less. They think HIV is a problem but they don’t think it’s a problem for them.

More worryingly, slightly under 40% believe that condoms prevent HIV. Thankfully, three quarters believe that condoms prevent pregnancy. But over 45% of respondents say that condoms often break. This suggests a need for more education on how to use condoms safely and perhaps even some work on ascertaining the quality of condoms that are available to people. Many of the condoms available to young people are donated by wealthy Western countries.

But despite so many thinking that condoms break or don’t prevent HIV or pregnancy, at least some of the same people still use them. The fact is, there isn’t much else available to prevent HIV. Of course, if people abstain from sex they are not at high risk of contracting HIV. That’s as long as they always get to choose whether or not to have sex, a questionable assumption. But most people will have sex eventually and waiting till you are married as a strategy has been well discredited over the years.

People living in a high HIV prevalence country like Kenya who think that they are not at risk of contracting HIV should consider the risk of those around them. They have sex with those around them, therefore they themselves are at risk. And if they don’t worry about HIV, they need to be reminded about other STIs, such as herpes, gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia, genital warts and any others. Some STIs are far more common in Kenya than HIV. Some are also incurable and many put one at increased risk of contracting HIV.

People should also consider the risk of early pregnancy. Girls who get pregnant when they are still at school are, typically, excluded from school until they have given birth. They are said to be a bad example to the other students including, presumably, the one who made her pregnant. Once excluded from school, many girls never return. Early pregnancy has many social consequences and the value of the condom for reducing HIV and other STIs should not overshadow the value of the condom as a contraceptive.

It’s time for the Catholic and other Christian churches to see that children (as well as adults) are at risk of HIV, other STIs and early and unwanted pregnancies. They need all the help they can get and they certainly don’t need contradictory messages about the fact that they face many risks. They also need to be clear about the steps they can take to reduce their risk. If they are completely free to choose their sexual experiences and how those experiences take place, they are lucky. But even if they are not lucky, they can still take care.

To preach against the use of condoms is to expose people to unwanted pregnancy, deadly disease, suffering and numerous direct and indirect social consequences. To state one’s doctrine is fine, but don’t use lies to back it up and to scare people into doing what suits that doctrine.



KenyaLuv said...

When warning someone against fire should you tell him to walk in the fire with a fireproof suit on or should you tell him to totally avoid the fire in the first place? Of course its to avoid the fire, so I have never understood peoples anger at The Churches teaching on abstinence. The Church is there to teach us the best, sinless way..not to compromise to people sinful lifestyles and give 2nd best solutions(which condoms are.) Leave The Church alone, they have their message and you can have yours. If your message can't hold up then there's no need to attack someone elses. If abstinence doesn't work then people will ignore it, but don't attack The Church they are only doing what is expected of them and that's to give a message of living a pure and holy life. And yes some people DO abstain and it works, so people should act like its impossible.

KenyaLuv said...

*shouldn't act...

Condoms said...

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Simon said...

Thanks KenyaLuv. You're right, some people do abstain. Most don't, that's why there is a HIV pandemic. As you can see from much research, many people don't use condoms, either. My argument against the Catholic church is that they lie about the effectiveness of condoms. I believe lying is a sin in the Catholic faith?

You're analogy doesn't stand up too well, having sex is not like walking in fire. Walking in fire is stupid, having sex is fun, some people, many, in fact, feel sexual desire and act on it. If you think it's like walking in fire perhaps you haven't had much sex education.

If the church wants people to suffer and die, they are going the right way about it. HIV rates are far higher among Christians than other denominations in most countries.