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District's XL effort in encouraging safe sex should be applauded

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; B01

You have to credit the makers of Trojan Magnum condoms. Using blinglike gold packaging and capitalizing on mentions by rap artists, the super-size Magnum XL has become the condom of choice throughout urban America.

"Whoa!" the rapper Ludacris says on "Teamwork," a song about a sex party. "Panties droppin,' body rockin,' Magnums poppin.' "

Ludicrous, indeed. But if songs like that help to popularize the use of condoms, so be it.

With the recent decision by D.C. officials to include the more expensive Magnums in a publicly funded free condom distribution program, Trojan has scored an impressive marketing victory.

But so has the city. By heeding the request of youngsters who wanted a condom they say is more comfortable, health officials have not only increased the chances that condoms will be used but also opened an important channel of communication on a sensitive but deadly serious subject.

"When we do free and voluntary screening at schools and summer youth employment programs, we find that at any given time, 9 to 14 percent of those tested have an undiagnosed, untreated and active STD," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the city's HIV/AIDS administration. "Chlamydia and gonorrhea are most prevalent. To make matters worse, almost none of those who have been infected are showing symptoms. They have it but don't know they have it" and are spreading it through unprotected sex, he said.

About 3 percent of the city's population is HIV positive, and with so many youngsters still having unprotected sex, that number is likely to rise.

The preference for Magnums was revealed last year in the city's Youth Sexual Health Project survey. The mainstay of the condom giveaway program, which began in 2006, was Durex -- a durable product that, although sounding like a house paint, is advertised with images of rose petals, candy and couples in tender embraces.

The D.C. market was not especially impressed. After three years, city officials found that 57 percent of high school students were sexually active but not using the condoms being given away in schools.

Enter the Magnum XL -- shaped like a baseball bat and billed as 30 percent larger than the average condom. Who knows whether dispensing a condom that plays on the urban masculine mystique will result in safer sex? It's worth the effort.

"The reality is that only about one in three sex acts among single Americans involve a condom," said Jim Daniels, Trojan's vice president for marketing. "We want to increase the usage by making sure that young people learn about the importance of condoms from anyone who has an influence on them, including rappers."

Sixty-five million Americans have an incurable sexually transmitted disease, and 19 million contract one every year -- two-thirds of them younger than 25.

Insights gleaned from the city's youth survey will almost surely help with efforts to prevent STDs and, perhaps more importantly, shore up the resolve of those who would rather abstain from sex.

"Despite being fed a steady diet of sexuality by our culture, many young adults admitted that they are not yet emotionally mature enough for sex," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the health committee. "They want information that helps them negotiate with their partners about how to postpone and not have sex."

Many respondents said they would trust their parents above all others to tell them the truth about sex -- if only their parents were willing and able to do so. But should young people have to suffer unnecessarily because their parents are uninformed or morally paralyzed?

At least encourage sons to use a condom and let daughters know that they will be hurt the most by not insisting on it. Studies have shown that access to condoms does not result in youngsters having more sex; they are just more likely to use them.

D.C. health officials and Trojan have teamed up for an online safe-sex education program that includes a writing contest for a condom rap song, which ends Monday. (See http://www.wrapmc.com.)

But don't stop there. Sponsor a free rap concert, no matter how freaky the performance -- as long as condoms headline the show.

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