Condom lockdown

Pharmacies are locking up condoms to stop theft but are only succeeding at preventing safe sex.


Sarah Goldstein
April 11, 2006 11:59PM (UTC)

Here's a story to file in the "it would be laughable if only it weren't true" column: The Washington Post today reports on pharmacies that keep their condoms locked up under the guise of theft prevention. CVS, the biggest chain in Washington, has 50 stores in the city; of those, 22 now keep their condoms locked in a glass box that requires customers to push a button for assistance to purchase them. Asking store clerks for condoms kept behind the counter can be embarrassing at any age, but having to push an actual condom call button draws the kind of unwanted attention that might deter even the most sexually confident.

And indeed, a drop in condom usage is exactly what has resulted. Christine Spencer-Grier, the leader of a Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington program that works with teen mothers to help them avoid future pregnancies, tells the Post that "teens are very sensitive to a disparaging look, a lecture -- all of those things are very intimidating ... [So] many girls [leave] the stores ashamed and empty-handed -- but still likely to have sex."

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Of course, CVS says that it has enacted the lockdown only on a "case-by-case basis" at stores with a particularly high risk of theft. Unfortunately, this generally means low-income neighborhoods where incidence of teen pregnancy is already higher than the national average. CVS would not disclose its theft statistics or say when it started locking up condoms. Shoppers, another pharmacy chain, says it locks up condoms in stores where the theft rate reaches 20 percent. But Heather Boonstra, a policy analyst for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that focuses on sexual health, is skeptical of the theft rationale. She tells the Post, "It's an economic thing. It goes back to prejudice and fear. In those areas of the city that are poor, stores fear that people are going to steal the product -- whether they do or not."

Unsurprisingly, those in the abstinence-only community are thrilled. Phil Buress, president of Citizens for Community Values, which "promotes abstinence as the answer to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy," applauds adding steps to the purchase of condoms." Buress told the Post that he'd rather see them "locked up. It's a lie that condoms prevent all sexually transmitted diseases anyway. People should be educated about that and practice abstinence."

Actually, Buress is right: Condoms are not effective against all sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies all of the time. Instead, condoms protect against HIV/AIDS 85 percent of the time and unwanted pregnancy 86 to 97 percent of the time. And access to that protection is something that should be easily available 100 percent of the time.


Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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