Some people sell cookies at college. Some sell puppy chow. Then there are others who sell novelty condoms.
Adam Glickman started selling condoms at Tufts University 22 years ago. They had the Tufts elephant mascot, Jumbo, on one side of the cover and “A Safe Jumbo is a Happy Jumbo” on the other. Now Glickman is CEO of Condomania, the first condom store in the nation. But he says he was not just selling condoms. He was affecting behavior.
“Guys around campus who I didn’t even know were giving me the ‘wink wink nod nod,’ and I was thinking to myself, why?” Glickman says. “It turns out it was because the guys were getting laid… because they had the Jumbo brand condom. They had it because everybody else had the condom. [My condoms] weren’t a stigmatized item like a pack of Trojans.”
Glickman says the humor of novelty condoms opened up an otherwise awkward discussion about safe sex. These were condoms with a greater purpose.
Some form of condom has existed since the time of ancient Egyptians. The modern latex condom came about around the 1920s. Now, despite the painful state of the economy, condom sales are up. In spite of its popularity, talking about condoms and safe sex does not have such an expansive history. The 1873 Comstock Law even banned any contraceptive sales or passing of any contraceptive information; the Supreme Court didn’t declare it unconstitutional until more than 100 years later.
Gender and sexuality Professor Hector Carrillo, who will be at Northwestern in the fall, says only when the AIDS epidemic hit in the ‘80s did the U.S. see “a certain level of normalization of condom use.” Now, years later, he thinks the effort to demystify condoms has come a long way.
“Condoms have become a part of our everyday conversation as a result of the development of almost 30 years,” Carrillo said.
The discussion about safe sex at Northwestern is pretty young compared to the history of condoms. Sex Week, a series of events by College Feminists aiming to open up discourse about sex, is only two years old, and SHAPE, Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators, is just as young. Yet sex has been going down amongst Northwestern students for longer than that, whether it is a one night stand with that friend of a friend or a romantic rose-petal-on-bed event with a possible soulmate.
“[Safe sex] is generally becoming more comfortable to talk about politically, but socially it’s still taboo,” says Weinberg sophomore Justin Smith. “It’s a very personal thing, sex. No one likes to get into details [like] ‘Did you use protection?’”
Glickman says that he thinks funny packaging combats that discomfort. And why wouldn’t you laugh at some of the novelty condoms on the market? From the clever tag lines of some of his celebrity condoms to the ridiculousness of distributor RipnRoll.com’s custom MyFace Condoms, these wrappers are bound to illicit at least a chuckle. They can be used, too. Unless explicitly specified, many novelty condoms are Federal Drug Administration approved.
Integrated Marketing Communications Professor Julie Danis says that humor can indeed get conversation started when it comes to personal items like condoms. Subsequently, conversations about the product can reduce stigma, the first step in getting people to actually use the product.
“It’s a tried and true tactic,” Danis said, citing an old campaign to get men to drink light beer.
The probability of a Willie the Wildcat condom getting Northwestern students to protect their peters is questionable, though. In cases of personal items like condoms, oftentimes people choose a brand they trust instead of a novelty item, says Danis. Chatting about a product does not definitively lead to use of a product.
“It’s a talk piece,” she says. “I don’t know that you’re going to show it to the woman you’re going to have sex with.”
LGBT Resource Center Coordinator Doris Dirk says she thinks condoms are not the contraceptive that needs the most publicity help on campus. Her office can get condoms “by the bucketful,” but for other protection like dental dams, they have “go out of [their] way to procure them.”
“People are so much more fixated on the transmission of HIV through a particular sex act versus the risk of oral sex transmitting not just HIV but also any STIs,” she says. “[It's assumed that] the only real sex involves a penis, [so] you only have to have a condom.”
Despite any shortfalls Northwestern might have, Coordinator of Sexual Health Education and Director of SHAPE Kathryn Guilfoyle says positive changes have been made on campus.
“Northwestern as a whole is setting a priority to have this continuous campus-wide dialogue,” she said. “We’re definitely going in the right direction.”
We may not be buying Northwestern condoms any time soon, but until then, we have distributors like Condomania and RipnRoll. Maybe next time you have to have a safe sex talk, pulling out a condom with your face on it will lighten the mood.