Myth Busting

The Pope Says Condoms Don’t Fight AIDS. Could He Be Right?


It is undeniable that condoms help cut down on HIV infections. They do. Wear a condom during sex, and the chances of transmitting the virus are significantly lower. THERE IS NO DENYING THIS. And yet, Pope Benedict XVI made the unfortunate argument that condom use in Africa “increases the problem.” Yes, when condoms are used improperly, their effectiveness wanes. But the very technology behind a condom — trapping semen in an impermeable container to keep it from entering your sex partner — limits the spread of HIV. But there went the pope, who has the ear of tens of millions of people on this planet, saying good morals will do more to cut down on HIV transmissions than rubbers. But, um, how to say this … WHAT IF HE’S RIGHT?

He could be. But only on a technicality.

While condom use has shown to be effective in minimizing new HIV infections in countries like Thailand and Cambodia, the data coming out of Africa suggests popping on a Trojan does little to nothing to stem infection rates. A 2003 study for the United Nations’ AIDS program “found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa,” reports the Washington Post. “UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. … Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called ‘Reassessing HIV Prevention’ 10 AIDS experts concluded that ‘consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.’”


But pay attention there: The studies say condom use is not saturated enough to be effective. That is, a single weak link — just a few people here and there not using condoms — can destroy the entire safeguard. How come? Because of “risk compensation,” which has people actually having riskier sex because they use condoms sometimes, making them think they’re safe. Also, people who think they’re in monogamous relationships might choose not to use condoms, because forcing your partner to wear one signifies a lack “lack of trust.” So when one partner is sleeping around outside of his “monogamous” relationship, guess what he’s bringing home to the girlfriend?

However, it’s those ongoing relationships that drive Africa’s worst epidemics. In these, most HIV infections are found in general populations, not in high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men or persons who inject drugs. And in significant proportions of African populations, people have two or more regular sex partners who overlap in time. In Botswana, which has one of the world’s highest HIV rates, 43 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had two or more regular sex partners in the previous year.

These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/AIDS spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.

Notes Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University: “There is a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the US-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys’, between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

But make no mistake: None of this data suggests condoms don’t work. They do. But only when most, if not all people are using them. It’s then we move beyond preventing one-on-one infection and toward preventing many-on-many transmissions.

The problem in Africa appears to be a passive or negligent attitude toward condom use, and that’s where inroads need to be made. Promoting wider-spread use — which has always been a core tenant of advocating condoms — is where the solution lies. And the pope, who said “the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms,” did nothing to help that message.

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  • Qjersey

    And on the home front, all it takes is and handful of HIV+ guys with a high viral load (or guys who doesn’t know they are infected..) running around barebacking as a top and “breeding” their partners that they met online or in the bath-houses or sex clubs…or anywhere for that matter, to keep the epidemic going here among gay/bi/MSM.

  • steve tabarez

    Wow. Seems to me that there are many subtleties and nuances to the numbers, the parameters, and the significance of the studies. Not to mention what it all means to the fight against HIV/AIDS worldwide. In many ways, I am much more confused than I was before reading this post. But, that is where it is up to me to take the time and effort to do just that. I just hope we all do. Too many people these days want it easy and have things laid out for them and if it is not, then just ignore things. Delving, analysis, and thouroughness are seemingly becoming so passe’. This isn’t an area where if it is not all spelled out, that can just be relegated to the OH, WELL. MUST NOT BE THAT BIG OF A DEAL, pile. It matters. And we should all raise our consciousness, knowledge, and self responsibility.

  • Ogre

    Let me tell you a story.

    Years ago I did some volunteer work with a woman who had been in Africa with an birth control program. She went into villages and showed men how to put on a condom by rolling one onto a piece of bamboo. A year later men from these villages were complaining that their wives were still getting pregnant. Why? The “magic sex charm” that would stop pregnancies, which she had showed them how to make, did not work. They were putting the condoms on bamboo, rather than their penis’.

    How are you suppose to curb the spread of HIV if those idiots don’t understand no glove, no love–EVERY TIME?

    Essentially what that report came down to was; they had sex with a stranger and use a condom. But when sleeping with their friends and friends of friends, they didn’t bother to use one.

    But don’t worry, circumcision is the new cure for HIV. Apparently. After all, it’s done us a world of good.

    Darwin was right.

  • Ogre

    “After all, it’s done us a world of good.”

    that should have been; A world of good for the US.

  • steve tabarez

    @OGRE. Guess you don’t know of any RED, WHITE, AND BLUE, good old boys that don’t use the gloves the same way you describe the idiots in Africa, huh? Guess that counters the obvious ignorance of your presumptions that in training of different cultures, good old American arrogance, and haughtiness is the way to educate. Hope your friend wasn’t as brash and condescening as you are. As a person of color and raised in a culture not of the predominately white values system, I have been the subjected to the tone you are expressing here. More, as someone who has gone out in the community doing the same type of educational training you describe, alot of Americans weren’t much less of an idiot than the African men you maligned.

  • BobP

    Condoms prevent the transmission of HIV. Period. Don’t confuse the issue by explaining that some people have unprotected sex with friends, or friends of friends, blah, blah blah. They are making bad choices based on bad information.
    I was an HIV counselor for many years. I got out of the business when bug chasers and bug givers and barebacking came into vogue. I found myself counseling people who got themselves infected on purpose and it made me angry.
    Condoms should be promoted all the time.
    We now have ads on TV for vaccines against HPV related cancer, but we still don’t have ads on network TV for condoms.

  • Alexa

    Could the Pope be right? Well, there’s always a first time, but I don’t think this is it.

  • John in SF

    Should the Pope be given credence as an infectious disease expert? Why does this even make the press/blogosphere? Would he like to comment on who should get a flu shot, or whether the Atkins diet is better than a low fat diet? Would the press (and Queerty) report it if he did? Most people in the world, catholics included, just ignore the pope just the way they ignore their eccentric uncle who tells the same war stories year after year…even though we know he never served in the war…Likewise we can be pretty sure the Pope has never had to worry about protecting himself from HIV…

  • 7SnowyNights

    This whole stupid rampaging disease thing in Africa is making me want to build a giant space laser to burn the whole thing clean. It’s an incredibly mean thing to say, I know, but I mean c’mon. Nothing is going to help these people EVER. A cure could be developed and pushed into the market in 24 hours and there would still be 25,000,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in Africa in ten, twenty years, likely more. Africa…is just so far behind every other populated continent in every imaginable aspect that it’s not feasible to consider the possibility of any “fix.” It’s depressing, but I can’t think of any way to bring Africa up to speed with the rest of the world.

  • Tallskin

    There was some loony catholic woman on the TV over here in the UK on the news when the balloon went up on this.

    She made the point that the amount of cases of AIDS in Uganda doubled when condoms were introduced.

    Being interviewed with her was this doctor (who spent most of her time shaking her head in despair) who explained that the number of cases of AIDS doubled when 1) condoms were introduced because 2) with the condoms came a whole army of health workers who, for the first time, gave HIV tests, and found out the true extent of HIV infection.

    So, it wasn’t that the condoms caused any increase in HIV infection rates but the flood of health workers accompanying the shiploads of condoms ascertained the true depth of the infection in the country.

    But the Catholic fanatic refused to concede any ground but kept hammering her point that condoms cause AIDS and that abstinence works.

    Thing is with stupid people like this, idiots committed to a simple ideological position that abstinence works, how do you argue, deal, with them? Well for a start you do not let them have any power or influence, you take away their funding and give it to secular health organisations. And you use the religious loons as foot soldiers to do grunt work well away from anything too specialist.

  • strumpetwindsock

    “Burn the whole thing clean”?

    That’s a little bit more than mean, and I’ll be kind and only say that it is as ridiculous as it is unrealistic.

    A lot of the reason why things are the way they are in Africa (and are kept that way) is BECAUSE developed world has been raping and abusing that continent and its people since the days of slavery.

    Would the Biafran genocide, Apartheid, the Mugabe regime, and wars in Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia and Darfur (just to mention a few) have happened had it not been for the interference of European, Islamic, U.S., Soviet, Chinese and other forces? I doubt things would be as bad as they are.

  • 7SnowyNights

    @strumpetwindsock: And how do the pillagers usually deal with the battered village? They burn it down.

    I know it’s a horrible, awful, sci-fi suicide thing to say, but it’s the mentality of the rapist confronted by the broken victim: you’re not gonna save ’em, so get rid of the evidence.

    I’d love Africa to become a functioning, giant piece of the global puzzle, some Promethean, shining pillar of intellect and industry, but I don’t know if that will happen, not in the next…500 years. The whole continent has to just, well, start over somehow.

  • Alec

    @7SnowyNights: Everything I’ve been reading lately suggests business is booming in Africa. I’m certain the economic downturn will slow this a bit, but Chinese demand has really kicked up investment over there.

  • 7SnowyNights

    @Alec: That’s good news. Socially, though, it’s a mess. And which businesses? Is it gold and diamonds again? I’m not being sarcastic or snarky, I just want to know if Africa is getting close to pulling itself out of the muck, which would be very good news.

  • strumpetwindsock


    Sorry man. Go read a few newspapers and a bit of history, because (how shall I put this?) you’re not expressing a very informed opinion.

    I know things are seriously fucked up in Africa, but even at this late date if the foreign carpetbaggers would get out they probably WOULD pull themselves out of the muck, without any help from us.

    Remember the shipment of arms China was trying to send into Zimbabwe last year so Robert Mugabe could slaughter his own people? They only reason they did not get through is because south african dockworkers wouldn’t let them in.

    Here’s another article about our misconceptions:

    If you really want to use your death ray to fix the world (and I am not suggesting this, just pointing out that you’ve got the wrong target) you could start by frying New York, Washington, L.A. Frankfurt, Beijing, Riyadh, Shanghai, HongKong, London, Moscow, and Tokyo.
    You can take Calgary, just so you don’t think I’m being biased.

    You’d kill a lot fewer people and probably solve a lot more of the world’s problems.

    But realistically, you’re not going to wipe anyone off the map. What is going on there is a tragedy and the shame of the world, not a giant game of Risk.

  • osocubano

    When did the Pope become an expert on STD’s?
    Was it during his time as a sex worker?

  • BobtheBob

    What this pontiff is expert on is medieval thinking, evil and ignorance. Oh, and since his previous job was being in charge of all the pedophilia investigations world wide…he could probably tell you a lot about how to bugger little boys and cover it up. He’s an ignorant, homophobic, Nazi prick.


    href=”#comment-139361″>BobP: Why the Hell would anyone catch it *on purpose*? I know people are stupid, but really… did they give any reasons?

  • ZAB

    Condoms do not give 100% protection from disease. Why take a chance with your health? Be an adult and wait until you get married.


    @ZAB: Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but he doesn’t want us to be allowed to do *that* either.

  • rapi

    Pope: Condom good but only on male prostitutes. It is to prevent the pope from getting AIDS. zing!

Comments are closed.