Strong, but thin‚ and with a touch of strawberry. That’s how South Africans like their condoms.
This is what people had to say about the government’s Choice condoms, which it distributed for free until earlier this year, according to a qualitative study commissioned by the health department.
Government data shows that 83% of all condoms dispensed in South Africa over the past decade were Choice condoms.
The research, carried out in 2013 by the social marketing organisation Society for Family Health, was conducted in KwaZulu–Natal and Gauteng. Six male and two female focus groups were run in the provinces. All participants had to have used a condom in the three–month period preceding the study and specifically a Choice condom in the six–month period before the study.
What do South Africans want in a condom?
The results, which were made public in September, led to the health department retracting Choice condoms and replacing them with Max condoms, which are available in strawberry, grape, vanilla and banana scents. The new brand of condom is also available in unscented versions.
Participants described the ideal condom as thin enough to feel “as natural as possible”, colourful but transparent enough to still be able to see the penis and tight on the end. When asked about scent, strawberry came out tops and Choice’s “rubber–like” smell was a no–no. Women wanted smooth, plain condoms without studs but men got this all wrong: most believed women preferred “studded, beaded, spiked and ribbed condoms”.
The Human Sciences Research Council’s latest national household survey, conducted in 2012, showed that, after a steady increase in the previous decade, condom use in South Africa declined between 2008 and 2012 by almost 20% among men (85.2% to 67.5%) and about 17% among women (66.5% to 49.8%) aged between 15 and 24. Older people, between 25–49, used condoms even less often: only about a third used condoms in 2012.
Condoms have been shown to be effective in preventing HIV infection if used correctly. With more than 400 000 new HIV infections occurring in 2012, South Africa has the fastest–growing HIV epidemic in the world, according to the survey.
The Society for Family Health study showed people often don’t use condoms to avoid suspicion or arguments because it “doesn’t feel like the real thing” when they have multiple sex sessions in one night, when they’ve used alcohol or if they know their partner’s HIV status.
One man said: “I have two wives. I don’t use a condom with them. But when I have sex with other women, I use condoms. I can’t use a condom with either of my wives, as they will get jealous and think I am either cheating or that I want to have a child with the other wife.”
A 2014 study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research found that other barriers to condom use include the embarrassment of buying condoms and the perception that condoms were for nonmarital sex only. It also found that promoting condoms for sexual pleasure, and not just as a way to prevent falling pregnant or contracting HIV, encourages people to use them.
Participants in the Society for Family Health study often put Choice condoms in “a separate group in their minds” because it was available for free.
“They believed free condoms are of bad quality even though they were satisfied with the actual product,” the organisation’s marketing and communications manager, Tessa Meyers, says. Also, women in particular disliked the rubber smell of Choice condoms.
According to the health department’s deputy director general for HIV, Yogan Pillay, the scented Max condoms “have created a lot of excitement and seem to be well liked by people. We plan to distribute close to a billion of these condoms and we want to increase availability in institutions of higher learning.”
HIV activist Vuyokazi Gonyela, of the social justice organisation Section27, says one of the biggest barriers to condom use is that free condoms are mostly only available at public health facilities. “Young people often complain about being judged by nurses in public clinics when they go and ask for condoms … and they often cannot afford to buy their own.”
The health department’s national strategic plan for HIV and sexually transmitted infections states that condoms should also be distributed to “nontraditional” outlets such as sex work venues and schools.
But distributing condoms in schools is not yet part of the education department’s policy — it’s left up to each school’s governing board to make a decision.
Gonyela argues that this policy should be reviewed: “The way forward is to evaluate sex education in schools. Condoms must be made available in schools because even though educators and parents may think that learners are not having sex, they are.”