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Commentary

Condomphobia

By Marjorie Heins

An alternately funny and sad news report in the business section of the July 16 New York Times recapitulated an old story of American schizophrenia on the subject of sex.

The Trojan condom folks created a clever TV ad showing women in a bar sitting next to large pigs, one of which buys a condom from a vending machine and promptly changes into a handsome prince. CBS and Fox TV rejected the ad. Fox's explanation: "it objected to the message that condoms can prevent pregnancy."1

This may be a somewhat garbled version of what Fox's spokesperson actually said - or at least, meant to say. The far-right's objection to condom ads, like its objection to teaching about any kind of birth control or safer sex in school, is that it might encourage people to have sex before marriage.

Bloggers and other critics, of course, did not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of media companies that push sex relentlessly in their feature offerings, yet moralistically reject a condom ad. One critic, Don Savage, said: "I'm offended by the reality that television is so hypersexualized and glorifies sexual excess and promiscuity, and then runs screaming into the megachurch and drops to its knees when someone wants to run an advertisement that urges people to be responsible about their sexual expression."

Perhaps Fox's Bill O'Reilly most pointedly encapsulated the hypocrisy that Savage described. He reportedly broadcast almost the entire ad on his "O'Reilly Factor" show in the course of explaining why it was inappropriate for television.

This reminded me of the direct-mail appeals that religious-right organizations used to send during the heyday of the "culture wars." They would enclose a sample photograph or two of the "pornographic" art that the government was funding, and offer to send more examples in exchange for a contribution to the group's campaign to end such outrages.2

The controversy engendered by the CBS and Fox decision has apparently provided excellent free publicity for the Trojan ad, which has now been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube; hence, presumably, free expression wins and nobody need worry about teenagers or anybody else not getting information about condoms. And perhaps it's true that only a small percentage of Americans are now ignorant of what condoms do and why it's important to use them.

But America's schizophrenia over sex is far from a victimless crime. If the guilt and confusion engendered by our hypocrisy prevents people from using the knowledge that's available to them, both public health and human beings suffer. It's not much good to know about condoms if you are too busy kneeling on a megachurch floor to buy them.

July 17, 2007

1. Andrew Adam Newman, "With Condoms in Particular, Local Stations Can Say No," New York Times, July 16, 2007, p. C5.

2. See Marjorie Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars (1993, 1998), p. 145. (describing the American Family Association's mailing of homoerotic photographs to its members with a fund appeal letter promising more such photographs if contributions are sent; and the Christian Coalition's juicy description of a lesbian film that it excoriated the government for having funded).


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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