February is National Condom Month.
Truly — it’s a thing. And the reason it’s a thing is that condoms save lives.
This is something my friend JP knows well and about which he educates folks all over the world.
Condom use might seem like a simple thing — information that is common sense — but all over the world where people are affected by shrinking support for sexual health and family planning, talking about condoms has become at best ill-advised, and at worse illegal.
JP is officially the revered Father Johannes Petrus Mokgethi-Heath, an Anglican priest from South Africa who currently works for the Church of Sweden in their International Department as policy advisor for HIV, sexuality and theology. He visited Federal Way recently to work on an international project we are both fortunate enough with which to be involved.
Unfortunately, JP’s plane landed on Monday, Feb. 4, the first day of Snowmageddon ‘19. After a flight missed due to a weather delay caused by snow in Sweden, he arrived at SeaTac “ready to roll!” only to find out the school we were supposed to attend (to observe me teaching fourth and fifth graders about values, body image and media messages) was closed not only that day, but the next day, as well.
Even though our scheduled plans that week kept being supplanted by working via laptop and Skype calls at my kitchen table — plus one foray to my local church — JP and I had much to do. Last spring, we traveled to Tanzania to provide a comprehensive sexuality education training to a group of religious leaders and educators, and the experience was transformational for all involved.
We are collaborating to gain cooperation and funding for another international project, one that we hope will reach people with the good news that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, that their identities are valid and even sacred, that information is good and useful in terms of decision-making, and yes, that condoms save lives.
These are messages that are needed, not only halfway across the world, but right here at home.
In the past week, I’ve supported people in Federal Way about teenagers, sexual identity and suicidal ideation. Even in 2019, in a relatively progressive area of the country, in a state where marriage equality was passed years before it became legal in our country, young people continue to feel afraid, anxious, burdensome and hopeless enough to consider taking their own lives — because of shame and stigma they internalize about who they are and who they love.
This shame and stigma contribute to confusion, early onset of sexual behavior, engaging in sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and yes, less use of condoms.
The real issue remains that pervasive embarrassment and judgment are not innocuous. They cause real damage, and more importantly, are not effective techniques in changing behaviors like those listed above.
In fact, LGBTQ teens have a much higher rate of being involved in an unintended pregnancy than their straight and cisgender counterparts. Meanwhile, the buildup of feeling ostracized and “othered” leads to real mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and a much higher suicide rate than straight and cis youth.
Sure, National Condom Month is about condom use. But it’s also about chipping away at the persistent shame and stigma that linger around sexual behavior and that lead to real harm.
Whether you distribute condoms, discuss sexual health with a friend or teen, or take a step to be more inclusive of diverse expressions of humanity, make the rest of National Condom Month an exercise in saving lives.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.