STUDY: Purchasing Condoms and Sexual Lubricants

It’s that time of the year again.... chocolate candy hearts, red roses and condoms. Yes, it’s National Condom Month! So sit back and join us as we look at what happened to over 500 individuals who were purposely sent into various locations to purchase condoms and sexual lubricants and report back on their experiences.

The types of locations that our participants chose to visit ranged from drug stores (Walgreens, Eckerds), convenience stores, supermarkets, discount stores (Target, Walmart) and adult book stores.

Upon entering the establishment of choice, our participants were to purposely ask someone in the store where the condoms were. In a majority of situations, there was a sort of surprised or shocked reaction by the person they asked. When a younger person was approached, they seemed to have an easier time handling the question than older individuals. The older the individual, the more surprised the reaction in the majority of situations. Men appeared to be less embarrassed by this question than women.

In some places our participants were surprised and angered by some reactions. At a Kash N Karry Pharmacy a clerk told one of our participants that if they had any sexual lubricants they would be in with the condoms. When she approached the condoms and could not find any lubricants she questioned another clerk who informed her that “We don’t have any here; there is no call for them.” Our participant responded by saying, “I guess people who shop at Kash N Karry are all properly lubricated for sexual intercourse.”

In many of the pharmacies, the condoms are right smack in front of the pharmacists desk; the place where people drop off and pick up their prescriptions. While you are browsing at the condoms in these locations, take a look over your shoulder. Many of our participants felt that this was a most embarrassing situation. In some instances, there were even people laughing or snickering at some of our participants. Purchasing condoms can be an emotional and embarrassing experience depending on the location of the condoms in the store and the individuals close by. In some situations, when other people were looking at condoms or lubricants, our participants asked them for assistance. In most of these situations, the individuals questioned offered not only useful assistance, but gave accurate information as well.

But here’s where it gets good. Once our participants were by the condoms, they then asked the nearest person they could for assistance in making a purchase. They needed to know which condoms were the best to buy and why. Before you start snickering, think about it for a second. Condoms are like any other product on the market. There are a slew of different brands and it can be really puzzling to a consumer on which are the best to buy and why. Some people immediately assumed that the condoms that cost the most were the best to purchase. “Well those condoms over there are like $35 a box. I guess they would be the best.” If our consumer was to have taken that box of lambskin condoms home they would have been in for a surprise. Lambskin condoms are useful in the prevention of pregnancy but not in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The most expensive doesn’t always mean the best.

Unfortunately, the majority of the sales associates that were asked for help in making a decision on which condoms were the best to buy, and why, didn’t provide any assistance at all. Most were too shocked. Yes, on a few occasions, some young people stood up and said “Yeah I use the Lifestyles cause they are not that expensive and don’t break.” In pharmacies, the majority of the clerks referred or, should I say, deferred this question to one person. “Oh, I think you better ask the pharmacist.” So, a large number of our people who went out for this survey waited on long lines at the pharmacists counter and questioned this bastion of pharmacological knowledge. In many cases, the pharmacist was shocked or appeared bothered that someone would ask a question like this. The looks of the people waiting on line were also very shocked, even though it is 1998. In 22% of the situations, where pharmacists were actually questioned for assistance, some form of misinformation was given to our participants. That is nearly one of every four!

In other situations, individuals simply pointed down isles with an appalled look on their faces when attempting to aid in making decisions. Others were unsure about which products did what. When a participant asked, “Well, does anyone in here know anything that could help me?” A pharmacist responded, “Look, they are all the same and just pick one that you think is fairly priced. I don’t have time for this nonsense.” Nonsense! The prevention of pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases is viewed as a bother and nonsense to a health care professional because it may have come into conflict with his own close minded belief system.

In some situations we purposely sent our participants into stores to purchase the wrong items to see if the salesperson or pharmacist would correct the situation. In over 80% of the situations where we sent individuals to purchase the wrong type of lubricants to be used with condoms, no one caught the mistake. Participants asked for petroleum jelly to be used with condoms. Petroleum jelly breaks down condoms because it is an oil based lubricant. Only water based/water soluble lubricants should be used with latex condoms.

When women were sent in and asked questions about the use of the female condom, in over 90% of the situations they were not given any information on how to use the female condom properly. “Look I think these things come with directions.” In another instance, a woman explained to a pharmacist that she wanted to purchase a female condom because her partner did not like to use male condoms. The pharmacist responded by saying, “Well I don’t know anything about them so who knows if they even work anyway.”

Prices for condoms ranged from less than a dollar for one to as much as forty dollars for a pack. No wonder they are generally in a supervised area in many stores. Condoms are expensive and in small boxes, making them a target for many young people who want to protect themselves and don’t have the money to purchase them. Tom is 17 and in high school. Tom told me that he tries to get condoms from local businesses that hand them out for free for the Florida Department of Health, but in some cases he can’t find any. “Yeah, it’s like when I can’t get them for free I have a couple of places where I know I can steal them pretty easily. I don’t like to steal and I don’t steal anything else, just condoms you know. I just don’t think it’s right that they cost too much money. Sometimes I can afford them, but most times I can’t. I just don’t wanna die you know. AIDS scares the fuck out of me and I’d rather have it on my record that I stole condoms than I got sick from AIDS.”

At the end of each questionnaire our participants filled out, they were asked about how they felt purchasing condoms and/or lubricants from the location they chose. In the majority of situations, the participant had a negative experience. There was a general feeling of anxiousness, anxiety and embarrassment. On occasion, people were embarrassed if someone they knew would see them purchasing these items and in some extreme cases there were even feelings of guilt and individuals feeling ashamed.

Unfortunately, our society refuses to address sexual issues so there is a general level of discomfort. With additional societal stigma, the act of purchasing condoms can be a negative experience. Many teens feel embarrassed and, although they know to purchase condoms, they don’t always know the difference between which are best to buy and why. For example, you do not use lubricated condoms for oral sex. Many others still use petroleum jelly and other oil based lubes like hand cream for sexual intercourse with condoms, breaking the condoms down and causing individuals to become exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and/or become pregnant. Let’s face it, we don’t even have condom commercials on the main television networks. And locally, our AIDS resource teachers in the school system can’t even explain how to use a condom properly because the school board doesn’t think it proper. So how is anyone supposed to really learn?

Let’s face it, we lost the sexual revolution and have to accept that we will also lose some of our friends as casualties to HIV because our society is still too close-minded to address these issues.

Back to February/March '98 Issue