An HIV/AIDS prevention advocacy group has launched a campaign to distribute one million condoms on a cross-country bus tour of the U.S. to promote HIV prevention and awareness – but might the group step on toes in its effort to equip everyone, including teenagers, on the issue of safer sex?
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) left Venice Beach, Calif., on Monday – which, consequently, was International Condom Day – for its "Condom Nation" tour. The group will travel to 20 cities in a 53-foot long bus over the next two months, distributing free condoms and administering HIV screenings.
Michael Weinstein, President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said the tour is meant to uniquely engage Americans and to influence their opinions on practicing safe sex.
"Condom Nation is a serious, yet somewhat whimsical and creative effort by AIDS Healthcare Foundation to help promote increased condom use and to help make condoms more accessible and affordable," Weinstein said in a news release.
Weinstein cited that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and STDs as well as eliminate the risk of unwanted pregnancy. The group's goal is to get people thinking about the benefits of condom use.
"Our hope is that Condom Nation raises awareness and sparks conversations along the way – both on the coasts and in the heartland – about the importance of condoms and the crucial role they play in disease prevention and safer sex," Weinstein said.
AHF says that about 48,000 new HIV cases and 19 million new STD cases are diagnosed every year. Condom use, the group claims, can curb these numbers drastically.
"If more Americans had access to condoms, these rates would plummet." Whitney Engeran-Cordova, Senior Director of AHF's Public Health Division, added in the statement. "Moreover, increased access to condoms will save the U.S. roughly $17 billion in annual HIV and STD related health care costs."
But there may be ethical concerns about distributing condoms to a crowd that might include young people, as the promotional image on AHF's website features young teens smiling while holding condoms. Some people may construe the condom distribution as a message that AHF encourages casual sex so long as the participants use contraception. And by distributing condoms to youth, AHF may unwittingly be pressuring teenagers to think they should be having sex.
AHF spokesman Ged Kenslea says the group's sole intention is to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and STDs, not to solicit youngsters into a life of debauchery.
"We are trying to keep this about real, straight-forward prevention," Kenslea told CP. "There's nothing salacious about this. We deliberately designed the 53-foot van so that it looks more like something you'd see at a state fair. We've been trying to thread the needle in really trying to make this about HIV and STD prevention in as much straightforward and innocent of a way as possible."
Another obstacle AHF faces is that parents of religious families may take exception to their children coming home with condoms in their book bags – although, to be clear, AHF will not visit schools on their tour. That's not to say, however, that distributing condoms in school is unprecedented.
Students as young as 13 are able to access condoms in many U.S. and U.K. high schools. Some U.S. schools have initiated free condom programs, including a school in Rochester, N.Y., that voted last month to distribute condoms to students as part of the school's health education curriculum.
Despite protests from parents and religious leaders, students at the Rochester high school say it makes them feel safer about having sex. High school students are going to have sex whether the community wants to acknowledge that or not, students said.
One district in Massachusetts is distributing condoms in the local high school as well as in elementary schools. Massachusetts Family Institute President Kris Mineau said the move violates families' rights to religious freedom by wrongfully influencing minors.
"Making condoms available to first graders bullies parents to submit to an agenda that promotes sexual promiscuity to innocent children at their most vulnerable age," Mineau said in a statement.
AHF's Kenslea said although the group's mission does not involve getting condoms into schools, AHF would support measures to make condoms available to students in need.
"I think [AHF] would definitely support the availability. If children need access, they should be able to get a condom from the school nurse," Kenslea said, adding that he doesn't think teachers should necessarily hand condoms out to students, but should make teenagers aware that methods for ensuring safer sex are available to them.
AHF will finish its tour in July in Washington, D.C., where the group will conduct the "Keep the Promise" on HIV/AIDS Treatment March to promote HIV awareness.