History of Medicine
Safe Sex and Condoms
Safer sex through the use of condoms became a hallmark of print advertisements, billboards, and posters beginning in the late 1980s. The images below symbolize an important advance beyond the simple messages about how HIV is transmitted, or who is at risk, by explaining how to prevent infection. Complementing public service announcements developed for television networks, which stressed the role of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, print media provided a crucial educational forum. By offering candid information, addressing specific populations, and using a variety of sophisticated marketing techniques borrowed from commercial advertising, print images effectively promoted safe sex and condom use at a time when a longstanding taboo against paid condom advertising on television continued to limit ads to late-night time slots. Today, only three of the six broadcast networks -- NBC, CBS, and FOX -- officially allow network-level condom advertising. Meanwhile, print images continue to offer an alternative media for promoting condom use and its benefits.
The poster to the left from the Health Promotion Branch of the Australian Board of Health is representative of a genre that used actual images of condoms combined with reference to their symbolic meaning or value. As part of an effort to overcome the psychic resistance to openly discussing condom use, this colored condom takes on the appearance of a popular candy and the literal function of the condom as a potential "life saver." The image offers a playful alternative to fear-inspiring or grave images predominant in many other HIV/AIDS and condom education efforts.
The San Francisco AIDS Foundation's "Rubberman Campaign" began in June 1990 at the annual San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration. Organizers created "Rubberman" as a multimedia campaign and combined it with grassroots street programs. Designed to normalize and eroticize safe sex and supply positive messages to the gay and bisexual community that equated attractive and desirable men with safe sex and condoms, the program included condom distribution at bars and clubs to supplement the advertising campaign.
Without reading the text in the posters to the left and below, designed by T. Charles Erickson for the New Haven Women's AIDS Coalition of the Mayor's Task Force on AIDS in 1988, the viewer would likely have no reason to suspect that these images are designed to personalize decisions about condom use. The image of this anonymous young man personalizes the textual message that using a condom is a responsible choice and a reflection of the feelings about your partner. The message -- to be serious about love is to be serious about disease prevention -- links romance with sensible, responsible behavior. Rather than utilize strategies of condemnation or fear, this poster, taken at face value, only offers the views and choices of one young man. The central message -- condom use -- is simply highlighted in red.
This poster provides an apparently simple and straightforward message, but it also addresses a persistent taboo by making it the parent's responsibility to educate their children about condoms and safe sex. Despite the rather uncomplicated design in each of these posters, the images and messages are still ambiguous. One viewer, for instance, might identify an implicit moral message about love or responsible behavior in each of the posters, while another could question the sexual orientation of the subjects themselves.
The poster to the left combines cartoons and sex education. Originally created by the Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health in Australia, and designed in conjunction with AVERT, an international AIDS charity based in the United Kingdom, the Condoman character was part of a broader prevention campaign that targeted younger Aboriginal audiences. In an effort to overcome the cultural stigma against condom use, the Condoman proudly clutches a box of condoms and proclaims there is no reason to be ashamed. The image correlates masculinity and responsible sexual behavior by challenging the appeal of promiscuity and suggests that safe sex is not a reason to feel embarrassed or disgraced.
The illustration to the right, used cleverly by a North Carolina fraternity in the 1990s to promote safe sex and condom use, is based on an ancient Central Indian painting first published in 1883 in the Kama Sutra of Vatsyavana. While loaded with potentially offensive cultural and sexual innuendo, the message is serious, "No sexual act is more death-defying than sex without protection. Don't put yourself in that position. -- Pi Kappa Phi."
In 1990, the Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health for Aboriginal Health Workers of Australia created the poster above as part of a campaign to dispel misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. The appearance of the characters and their broken English are designed to appeal to a specific audience and culture: Aborigines. To overcome cultural barriers, posters like these frequently avoided explicit reference to sexual taboos such as the use of condoms. In this case, the female character suggests that AIDS education has challenged the predominant association of condoms with embarrassment.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's AIDS Administration also utilized the popular cartoon format by creating King Condom in 1988. In this poster, the condom-shaped character holds a shield symbolizing his protective qualities. The images of contraceptive lubricant and packaged condoms, along with the dialogue of King Condom, promote safe sex practices and offer condom education information available in state-run health clinics.