In the summer of 2004, at the height of the abstinence-only-until-marriage insanity under Bush’s global AIDS policy, I attended the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. While the majority of conference attendees were in fact researchers, policy-makers, and media representatives, there was a large contingent of advocates from around the world, and of course a large representation from Thailand. And during a time when “condom,” “prevention,” and “safer sex” had become dirty words in Washington, DC, the Thais brought with them their unique approach to condoms: Make them fun, colorful, obvious, available, destigmatized, everywhere.
I saw Thai activists strolling the halls clothed only in condoms of various shapes, sizes, and textures. There were elephants parading around the conference center covered in thousands of condoms. There were condom hats, condom booths, and condom giveaways. Thai sex workers gave condom demonstrations.
And there was Mechai.
Mechai Viravaidya is the Founder and Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA). He is an internationally recognized leader in public health, education and community development. He is also Thailand’s “Condom King.” He’s been working since the seventies to destigmatize safe sex, and promote effective use of condoms, among other forms of contraception.
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Mechai’s work and the support of the Thai government for widespread condom distribution and contraceptive access have been hailed as responsible for greatly reduced rates of unwanted pregnancy–and hence lower total fertility rates–and for substantial success in slowing the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in Thailand.
As an article by the Gates Foundation notes:
Head to the website for “Condoms & Cabbages” restaurants and you’ll see an unusual tagline: “Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.” This enterprise, like so much Mechai touches, uses innovative, humorous means to very serious ends, such as enabling families to plan their pregnancies, and preventing the spread of HIV infections in Thailand. His organization, the Population and Community Development Association is now one of the largest non-profits in Thailand.
Given this history, it is not surprising to get an official government press release, from the National News Bureau of Thailand, of the creation of an official condom museum.
Official as in government sponsored.
The Ministry of Public Health has opened a “condom museum,” aiming to educate and create correct understanding among youngsters, states the release.
Deputy Minister of Public Health Phansiri Kullanartsiri stated after the opening ceremony that the condom museum project is intended to eliminate Thai people’s negative point of view on condom usage, create awareness of sexual protection and boost their confidence in using condoms. The museum and condom testing laboratory located at the Department of Medical Sciences in Nonthaburi Province will be open to public. Visitors will be assured of the international standard of condom use at 96%. The exhibition is expected to correct the misunderstanding that using condom is an obstacle to sex affairs.
Meanwhile, a recent survey conducted by the Disease Control Department on online condom vendors indicates that the demand for smaller size condoms has soared. This reflects that nowadays there are more youngsters engaging in sexual activity.
While clearly no country is perfect, and there are plenty of bones to pick with the Thai government on other issues, their commitment to sexual and reproductive health (if not rights and justice, on which let’s just say they are further behind) should and can be emulated by other nations, not least of which is the United States. Despite the fact that we voted the Bushies out, the Obama Administration still has problems making good on its campaign pledges to support unfettered access to contraception for all women and men. The United States still has a collective fainting spell every time the notion of advertising condoms on television is debated. And we are still debating whether we should “let the bible” guide sex ed in the classroom, or use actual evidence-based approaches to comprehensive sex ed. And as a result, we have among the highest rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections of all countries in our “income bracket.”