Imagine being a teenage kid
getting ready to go on a date with someone you’re pretty sure is going
to have sex with you that night. Now, I want you to imagine being
a real teenage kid. Not your adult reimagining of yourself as
smarter and more mature than you were. Not a teenage kid like
the kind you see on TV–preternaturally self-confident and aware.
Real teenage kids. Probably already full of butterflies at the
very thought of sex (not that this stops the 46% of 15-19 year
olds that are sexually active),
and already focused on minimizing the number of nosy adults who know
about it. But, being a good, responsible kid, you do make an effort
to use protection. You roll down to the closest drug store–nowadays,
most likely a CVS–and discover, to your horror, that the condoms are
locked up in a cabinet, and you can only get them by fetching a salesperson
and asking for them.
Now remember, you’re a real
teenager here, not a superhuman one like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
You’re pumped full of hormones, most of your interactions with adults
involve them condescending to you or telling you what to do, and you’re
not thinking clearly. It starts to seem impossible to you that
you could calmly fetch a clerk and have them unlock the cabinet.
Your initial plan was to grab the condoms and a couple of magazines
and hustle out there whistling tunelessly, so that no one stared at
you like you’re about to have sex and they’re going to figure out
all the details by staring. But now what do you do? What
if the clerk laughs at you? What if they act like they’re too
busy to help you? What if they ask for ID?
Oh crap, what if it’s
illegal to buy condoms? Don’t laugh–remember, you’re
a teenager hopped up on hormones, not a boring adult who knows what
the law actually is. Teenagers are used to having their access
to all sorts of things restricted by law, schools, and parental authority.
Every time you turn around, someone’s shoving a form in your face
to get parental permission or simply telling you no. And it’s
not like anyone’s going out of their way to get condoms to high school
kids, so you begin to worry that maybe you have to be 18 to buy condoms.
Why else would they put them in a cabinet?
Now, if you’re being honest
about what it was like, at least for most of you, to be teenagers, you
know what happens next. Out of fear and shame, you slink out of
the CVS and go on your date without carrying protection. Which
is exactly why there’s
calls for more research and discussion of withdrawal as a contraceptive
Sort of.) Unfortunately, this situation is an all-too-likely
danger, which is why the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) has started a petition
to ask CVS to put its condoms on the regular shelves instead of locking
them in cabinets.
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Your panicked teenager may
think that the condoms, like cigarettes, are locked up because there’s
restrictions on their sales, but that’s not the reality. CVS,
along with other drugstore and grocery stores, locks up condoms as an
anti-theft measure. Unsurprisingly, this means that people who
live in lower-income neighborhoods are more likely to face a locked
cabinet when they go to CVS to buy condoms, as
a report from Change To Win discovered.
CVS’s anti-theft measures
signal distrust of people of color. At hundreds of stores across the
country in communities of color, CVS displays condoms in locked cabinets
that require customers to summon CVS staff to unlock them and monitor
customers while making their selections.
Right now, it’s very fashionable,
especially in the "common ground" discourse, to claim that women
living in poverty are more likely to abort than women who aren’t because
they can’t afford to have children. That may be so, but let’s
face it–the fact that they have all these obstacles to access to pregnancy
prevention is why they’re more likely to find themselves facing an
In addition to prejudices about
shoplifting, I’d suggest that another reason that condoms get locked
up in certain neighborhoods goes back to the tendency of condoms to
be marketed, at least in the U.S., as luxury items like fancy liquor
or cigarettes are marketed. It’s not something that most of
us think about much, but my recent travels in Europe reminded me of how
unnecessary this marketing strategy is. How so? Well, in
England at least, the bathroom condom machine is both ubiquitous and
well-stocked with name brand condoms like Durex. We even stayed
for a time at a "family" resort on the coast, the sort of place
where you expect cheap stuffed animals and rickety amusement park rides,
but not condom machines. But sure enough, well-stocked, decent
condom machines were in every bathroom even there.
But in the U.S., the bathroom
condom machine is the province of sleaziness. If you can even
find one in adult places like bars, it’s probably stocked with brand
Ribbed For Her Pleasure, something that will make even brand-unconscious
adults wary. With those associations, good luck finding condom
machines, especially with well-known brands, in places where people
can actually use them. This desire to feed luxury associations
to brands like Trojan or Durex only encourages the practice of locking
them up in cabinets in lower-income neighborhoods.
And while I’d wish that CVS
would unlock the condoms as a public service, I know that’s not going
to fly when they’re awash in shoplifting paranoia. Instead,
I’ll appeal to their desire to make more money. Think of all
the condom sales they lose because people, especially young people,
come in, see the condoms are locked up, and leave rather than risk the
embarrassment of telling some clerk you’ve never met before, "Yeah,
no, not the Magnum, the regular size is just fine." Plus, if you don’t
lock up the condoms, you encourage people to buy companion items like
sodas and magazines to deflect attention from the main reason they came
to the store.