Fifty-three thousand, three-hundred, and fifty-two.
That’s the number of safer sex kits Desert AIDS Project volunteer Gene Touchet has built since he joined our Condom Club in 1998.
That’s 53,352 opportunities to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, (STIs), and unintended pregnancies in D.A.P.’s service area. That’s 53,352 chances for our family, friends, and neighbors to enjoy life without anxiety, shame, or fear of disease.
For Gene, however, it started out as just a way to socialize and stay active when he retired. He continued with the Condom Club for 18 years because, in addition to providing a much-needed service, membership in the club is, well, fun. “There are a lot of dirty jokes and strange stories told when we get together. There’s a lot of laughter, which is a morale booster for me,” Gene says, adding with a chuckle. “The donuts are good, too.”
With February designated National Condom Month, we thought this was a great time to highlight this group that was established in 1995 and still meets on the third Tuesday of each month here at Desert AIDS Project. In many ways, the Club is reflective of D.A.P.’s origins as a grassroots, all-volunteer response to helping those with HIV and AIDS.
In the U.S. each year, there are nearly 20 million new cases of STIs, about half of which are in teenagers and young adults, according to the American Sexual Health Association. STIs often have no symptoms, which is why using condoms is important each time someone has sex. Numerous studies have shown the value of condoms in reducing transmission risks with a host of STIs, including HIV, HPV, and chlamydia. Using condoms is one of the smartest and simplest things we can do to protect our bodies. It’s estimated that 18 billion condoms were used globally in 2015.
Todd Watkins, a community health educator at D.A.P. who manages the Condom Club, agrees. While condoms are 98-99% effective in preventing the spread of HIV, they were the precursor to PrEP – short for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – which is a daily pill that helps keep HIV-negative people from contracting HIV. Widespread use of both prophylactics could end the spread of AIDS in our lifetime, Todd explains. Learn more at The Dock, D.A.P.’s sexual wellness clinic devoted to education and treatment of STIs, which is soon to mark its first anniversary.
Clearly, condoms are essential in the lives of the sexually active and, thousands of years after their invention, remain a darn good idea, Todd says. The first evidence of condoms dates back to 3000 B.C., to King Minos of Crete, whose legend appears in Homer’s “The Iliad.” As “father of the Minotaur,” the half-man, half-bull monster confined to the labyrinth beneath his palace, Minos was reported to have semen so potent that it killed his mistresses – no doubt, due to the serpents and scorpions it was said to contain. However, the gods apparently smiled upon the responsible “connubial coupling” that Minos brought to the royal bedchamber … because even though Minos or his wife Pasiphae wore a goat’s bladder as protection against this superhuman semen, she still managed to give birth to eight children by Minos.
Used and modified over the centuries by the Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, and Renaissance-era Europeans, among others, and called by a variety of names – jimmy, rubber, raincoat, helmet, wetsuit – the condom most likely got its real name from a British doctor of the 17th century, Colonel Condom. According to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Condom liberally prescribed “the sheath” to both soldiers and sailors, whose ranks were thinning due to venereal disease, and to their commander-in-chief himself, King Charles II, who had severe and recurring “baby mama drama” – an excess of illegitimate children – during his reign.
The condom evolved from various incarnations of animal skins, cloth, plants, before Charles Goodyear created a soft and pliable rubber version in the 1860s. Today, Desert AIDS Project distributes between 3,700 and 5,200 condoms a month to about 52 bars, resorts and other establishments throughout the Coachella Valley. The Condom Club, which has more than a dozen regular members, assembles safer sex kits, including a condom, lubricant, and an insert with instructions and resource information.
Distributing to schools is rare, but it happens from time to time. “When I go to schools that allow it, I bring male and female condoms,” Todd says. “The students are often curious about the female condom, so I’ll open a package and show it to them, explaining how it’s used.”
Sharing knowledge of sexual health and distributing condoms is very important to Gene Touchet. Even though he started out with the Condom Club as a lark, he stayed because it was the right thing to do. As Gene says, “I don’t have a lot of money to give, but I have time and this certainly needs to be done.”