Monday, November 26, 2007

Go Johnny Go!

Onto yet more controversial subjects this week (get that headed letter paper ready). December 1st is World AIDS Day and with rare foresight the Indonesian government has declared that this also be the first day of the country's first National Condom Week. Hopefully this will help to dispel some of the stigma that surrounds the things (prophylactics, rubbers, French letters, Johnnies, Casper the ghost, select the term of your choice) in this country.

To get through the dull statistics first, Indonesia has one of the fastest growing HIV populations in Asia and, although this is largely related to intravenous drug use, there could be up to 250,000 cases here. Unfortunately, condoms account for only 1% of contraception and I would imagine that at least 50% involves the use of the time-honored method of praying and hoping for the best. Female sex workers here generally don't go for condoms and instead choose a tri-monthly injection as their contraceptive method of choice, thus leaving them exposed to the virus.

Among the poor, condom penetration is low (that's a rather unfortunate phrase) and family planning drives have had limited success. Indonesia is a patriarchal society of course and men have the social power to demand sex from women who are generally more subservient. Women are also known to have been blamed for infections, scapegoated for the folly of their men.

Religion is also a factor and Muslim leaders see the promotion of condoms as being equivalent to the promotion of free sex and this has also led to low exposure for our little latex friends. Fortunately, this Islamic reticence about rubbers hasn't reached the level of the Catholic Church whose, "Every sperm is sacred" anti-contraception doctrine and fallacious propaganda regarding the efficacy of condoms effectively condemns many in Africa to death.

I'd like to do my bit for National Condom Week though, the disapproval of various Imams and the Holy See notwithstanding. I've therefore penciled the first week of December into my diary, bought some 'rubber hats' and aftershave and will see if I can get a result. It's for the good of the country you understand.

Condoms are a marvelous invention. They protect against pregnancy and HIV transmission (all the scientific reports on the Internet that I looked up to agree on this). They thus kill two birds with one stone. And let's face it, in terms of family planning, this island of Java is too densely populated and could certainly use a more liberal application of the old Surat Perancis. Alas, ex-president Soeharto's family planning drives, which were run under the slogan "Dua Anak Cukup" (two children are enough), seem to have fallen off the edge of the political radar in recent years. Hopefully National Condom Week will help to readdress this problem. Hell, maybe they should even make chicken shaped ones to put over the island's 'cocks' as an anti bird flu measure. You can never have too much rubber in your life I say.

Condoms were apparently first discovered in Egypt and date back 3000 years. They were originally made from animal intestines apparently (hmm). During World War I, the condom wasn't available and many soldiers subsequently came home with various sexually transmitted diseases to go with their shellshock. In World War II though, condoms were widely promoted and were also put to work in a variety of nonsexual uses such as keeping dirt out of rifle muzzles and covering the firing mechanisms of underwater munitions to keep them dry.

Fast forward to 2007 and the modern latex condom is widely available in Jakarta for those who are interested. Even street side Warung stalls sell the familiar local Sutra brand and apparently a Durian variety is also available, although presumably this refers to its flavor and not to spikes sticking out of it.

I have to brave the chemists though when I'm in need of some stretchable friends. Unfortunately, Indonesian drugstores seem to have the highest staff to customer ratio of any local shops (about five to one at my estimate) which can be intimidating if you are in any way bashful about your rubber purchases. Many is the time that lovely young ladies have followed me around the shelves brandishing bottles of vitamins and inquiring as to what I'm looking for. "Er... razor blades," I'll usually reply before slinking off to locate the Casper shelf on my own.

And what a selection there is these days: Ribbed, Ticklers, Gossamer Thin, etc,etc, along with various gels and lubricants, it's all very confusing. The latest product that I've seen is called Tingle Gel, which apparently, in addition to lubricating, also imbues a sensation of warmth into both the wearer and his partner. Thankfully there doesn't seem to be a local version of this. I mean, Durian condoms are all very well but Sambal (chilli sauce) gel would be a step too far. I'll see you in casualty.