Once kept in the back of pharmacies, condoms have become common and familiar items in the 1980s and 1990s because of the AIDS crisis. Apart from sexual abstinence, condoms represent the safest method of preventing the transmission of the HIV virus through sexual intercourse, and, consequently, condoms figure prominently in safer-sex campaigns. The increase in demand has led to a diversified production to suit all tastes, so that condoms have been marketed not only as protective items but also as toys that can improve sex. Condoms are so ubiquitous that conservative writer Richard Panzer has despaired that we all live in a Condom Nation and a world of latex.
Condoms are as old as history: a type of modern-day condom may have been used by the Egyptians as far back as 1000 B.C. History blends with myth, and several legends record the use of primitive condoms: Minos, the king of Crete who defeated the Minotaur, is said to have had snakes and scorpions in his seed which killed all his lovers. He was told to put a sheep's bladder in their vaginas, but he opted instead to wear small bandages soaked with alum on his penis. Condoms have been discussed by writers as diverse as, to name but a few, William Shakespeare (who called it "the Venus glove"), Madame de Sévigné, Flaubert, and the legendary lover Giacomo Casanova.
If it is difficult to come up with a date of birth for condoms, it is even more complicated, perhaps quite appropriately, to establish who fathered (or mothered) them. Popular belief attributes the invention of condoms and their name to a certain Dr. Condom, who served at the court of the British King Charles II. According to a more scientific etymology, the name derives from the Latin "condere" (to hide) or "condus" (receptacle).
Early condoms were expensive and made of natural elements such as lengths of sheep intestine sewn closed at one end and tied with a ribbon around the testicles. Modern rubber condoms were created immediately after the creation of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear in the 1840s and have been manufactured with latex since the 1930s. Also called "sheath," "comebag," "scumbag," "cap," "capote," "French letter," or "Port Said garter," a condom is a tube of thin latex rubber with one end closed or extended into a reservoir tip. In the 1980s and 1990s condoms have appeared on the market in different shapes, colors, flavors, lubrications, and sizes. Some are equipped with ribs, bumps, dots, or raised spirals to enhance stimulation. The safe-sex message originally associated with condoms is now being complemented by the marketing strategy claiming that using condoms is fun, and some are even intended to be used for entertainment only (and not for protection from disease or pregnancy).
Once seen as a great turn off, the condom has appeared with increasing frequency in (mainly) gay porno movies, especially, although not exclusively, in the educational safer-sex shorts produced by AIDS charities and groups of activists. As Jean Carlomusto and Gregg Bordowitz have summarized, the aim of these safer-sex shorts is to make people understand that "you can have hot sex without placing yourself at risk for AIDS." This has raised important questions about the possibility of using pornography as pedagogy. This new use of pornography as a vehicle for safer-sex involves, as safer-sex short director Richard Fung has pointed out, a "dialogue with the commercial porn industry, about the representation of both safer-sex, and racial and ethnic difference."
Looking at the dissemination of "condom discourse" one might be tempted to conclude that society has finally become more liberated. There are condom shops, condom ads, condom jokes, condom gadgets such as key-rings, condom shirts, condom pouches, condom web-sites with international condom clubs from where chocolate lovers can top off their evening with the perfect no-calorie dessert: the hot fudge condom. Yet how effective really is this "commodification of prophylaxis" (to use Gregory Woods's words) in terms of prevention and saving of human lives? Is it, in the end, just another stratagem to speak about everything else but health care and human rights?
Carlomusto, Jean, and Bordowitz, Gregg. "Do It! Safer Sex Porn for Girls and Boys Comes of Age." A Leap in the Dark. Edited by Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison. Montréal, Vehicule Press, 1992.
Chevalier, Eric. The Condom: Three Thousand Years of Safer Sex. Puffin, 1995.
Fung, Richard. "Shortcomings: Questions about Pornography as Pedagogy." Queer Looks—Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. Edited by Martha Gever, John Greyson, and Pratibha Parmar. New York, Routledge, 1993.
Panzer, Richard A. Condom Nation—Blind Faith, Bad Science. Westwood, Center for Educational Media, 1997.
Woods, Gregory. "We're Here, We're Queer and We're Not Going Catalogue Shopping." A Queer Romance—Lesbians, Gay Men and Popular Culture. Edited by Paul Burston and Colin Richardson. New York, Routledge, 1995.