Holes in the condom
The following is a critique of an article in Consumer’s Report, March 1989.
Statement: “Under a scanning electron microscope at 30,000 power, the surface of a latex condom appears somewhat bumpy but shows no pores.”
Rebuttal: The bumps are the pores! What would you expect to see – the Grand Canyon? If latex doesn’t have pores, how could it stretch? If it doesn’t have pores, how can a blown-up balloon, tied shut, deflate after a period of time? Everyone knows that it does.
Statement: “When stretched, the latex remains a pore-free membrane. It won’t even let water – one of the tiniest molecules – filter through.”
Rebuttal: Water has surface tension, causing the molecules to cling together. You simply wouldn’t have a separate molecule. In a spaceship, water floats through the air in round droplets because the surface tension holds the molecules together. Rain falls in droplets for the same reason. The concept that “waterproof” means having no pores is a false one, easily refuted. Here’s a statement from a scientific encyclopedia: “Since under normal conditions the skin is waterproof, it helps to conserve the water content of the body.” Does this mean skin doesn’t have any pores? Obviously, it doesn’t mean any such thing. We’d all die if our skin didn’t have pores. We repeat: Water molecules cling together; that’s why they don’t go through intact latex. Viruses, however, don’t clump in the same manner.
Statement: “Under a scanning electron microscope, the membranes (of natural condoms) reveal layers of fibers crisscrossing in various patterns. That latticework endows the skin with strength but also makes for an occasional pore…”
Rebuttal: An occasional pore? These products are made of animal intestines which, like any other body parts, have pores. They couldn’t work otherwise! Sometimes, when the pores happen to overlap in the layers, the holes are deeper and more noticeable. Also more dangerous because they provide weak spots. But these natural membranes don’t have merely “an occasional pore!”
Statement: “A number of laboratory experiments have explored whether various sexually transmitted germs can get through latex condoms. Condoms filled with a solution containing high concentrations of a sexually transmitted microbe are suspended in a sterile liquid medium. Then the medium is cultured to determine whether any microbes have passed through the latex. Some experiments use an apparatus to stimulate intercourse to check if mechanical stress affects porosity.”
Rebuttal: You said that latex doesn’t have pores! How then could mechanical stress affect porosity? We’ve seen the test descriptions, and they don’t simulate intercourse, although the testers think so. In the test, the plunger moves up and down inside the condom. But the penis doesn’t do that! The device fits over it like a second skin, and the two work together as a unit – a significant difference! The pressure on the condom comes not from the up and down motion but from the swelling of the male organ. And it’s a steady pressure, not greater on the downward thrust, relaxed on the upward pull, until ejaculation, when there’s a burst of force probably greater than that produced by a plunger. Furthermore, judging from the size of the syringe barrel (12 millimeters) in the test reports we’ve have seen, the condom isn’t stretched to the size it would be in actual use.
In other testing, in which infectious material-filled condoms are merely suspended in liquid, there’s no pressure except from the material, so it’s meaningless as a useful procedure.
Statement: “The relevance of these results to (skin) condoms in actual use isn’t known. For example, lab studies typically use viruses suspended in blood serum or tissue culture media, not real semen. Semen has greater surface tension – it forms a glob – so any suspended material may have a harder time migrating outward.”
Rebuttal: As we’ve already pointed out, water has surface tensions, too, but that doesn’t mean something suspended in water can’t get through. Most school children have done experiments on osmosis with sugar, water and some sort of membrane in which the water doesn’t pass through but the sugar does. In addition, the use of blood serum or tissue culture instead of semen skews the results in several possible ways. Blood serum has surface tension; it also has pathogen-fighting substances, and who knows that it hasn’t killed out the viruses? That’s why they don’t show up. Tissue culture contains cells into which the viruses can inject themselves; so, naturally, they won’t come through the pores of the latex if the cells are too large (which, in all likelihood, they are).
Statement: “Scientists also gauge the condom’s effectiveness from its performance as a contraceptive.”
Rebuttal: This is totally meaningless. A woman can get pregnant only during her fertile time, perhaps 24-48 hours a month, but a person can get a sexually-transmitted disease any time – any time he or she comes in contact with it.
Statement: (In condom testing) “… the agents run a standard water test – filling condoms with about 10 ounces of water – to spot pinholes.”
Rebuttal: We’ve already explained why water tests don’t prove that a virus can’t pass through. Furthermore, we doubt very much that 10 ounces of water would be sufficient for stretching a condom to its in-use size.
There are some other points on which we could comment, such as “Condom packets should be opened gently to avoid damaging its contents.” (This is a product that’s supposed to be tough enough to protect you against a deadly disease but you have to open the package gently?) However, we feel that we’ve covered the subject adequately enough to make any reasonably intelligent person horrified over just how little the researchers and the health authorities know about condoms. We wonder how many tens of thousands of people have contracted incurable viral STDs because of the misleading claims, mistaken concepts, and flawed testing
The risk of condom failure in anal intercourse is so high that the practice should be avoided entirely, with condoms or without.
The day of the condom is over. Religious leaders should no longer feel they have to accept its use in spite of their moral attitudes. They no longer have to feel they are placing anyone in danger by disapproving of the product. Quite the opposite, in fact. Now, school officials can, in good conscience, throw out AIDS educators who persist in promoting condom use as a preventative measure. It is finished.
It may require efforts by ordinary people, however, to see that the news gets out.
The author lives in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.A., and is the Director of Population Renewal Office.