An article in my local paper announced that a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (Winer, “Condom Use and the Risk of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection in Young Women,” June 22, 2006) had found that “Condoms protect against cervical cancer.”
Given the recent television advertising campaign blanketing the airwaves, everyone should know by now that most cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is transmitted through sexual contact.
To the average person the word “protect” gives the impression that if a couple were to use condoms 100% of the time, the chance of the woman becoming infected with HPV would be very slight.
What the study actually found was that if 100 women used condoms 100% of the time for one year, 37 would be infected with HPV. This is hardly protection, particularly where the risk of cancer is concerned.
The study's results demonstrated that the real risk factor for HPV infection is the number of sexual partners and their sexual experience. Among the women whose male sexual partner likely had no previous sexual experience, there were no HPV infections. On the other hand, the risk for 100 women who had more than one new partner was 22%, meaning more than 2 infections per woman.
But the study revealed something more significant, although its authors failed to mention it in their conclusions: the absolute failure of condom education.
Here we have the best case scenario for educating women on the importance of condom use. The 82 women included in the report were smart enough to get into college, prudent enough to arrive as virgins, concerned enough to enter the condom study, willing to record their sexual behavior every two weeks in an electronic diary, and health conscious enough to submit to regular exams. They undoubtedly were instructed in condom use and its importance, and the dangers of sexually transmitted infections, particularly cancer-causing HPV. One would expect that condom use in this population would approach 100%. But sadly no, and with predictable results.
During these 164 eight month segments which are reported on in the article only 25% of these highly educated and highly motivated subjects used condoms 100% of the time and these had an infection rate of 37.8%. Given the even higher rates of infection among those who used condoms less that 100% of the time, this means that all the women who were sexually active were putting themselves at high risk of HPV infection.
And the results may have been worse because while it is possible that 25% of the sexually active women used condoms faithfully for the entire study, it is also possible that many of subjects used condoms faithfully for the first eight month segments and then became less faithful after that.
This study proves that condom education is not an effective protection strategy. The condoms provide only marginal protection against HPV, but more importantly over and over again it has been shown that even under the best conditions achieving 100% condom use in an at risk population is virtually impossible.
Those pushing condoms as a solution to the pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases refuse to face the human dynamics of sexual relations outside a faithful marriage. The fact is that those who start out with the intention of using a condom don't follow through. The sexual activity becomes a habit, but the condom use doesn't. Over time they “forget.” Infection with a sexually transmitted disease for those who are sexually active with multiple partners becomes almost inevitable.
On the other hand, abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage provides real protection.
Dale O'Leary is a writer, pro-family activist and educator living in Rhode Island. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.