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It’s Lent and, for the first time in a long time, I actually visited a church on Ash Wednesday and am reverently observing the period by giving up coffee and chocolate.  Since my early objections at a young age to certain criteria required of the faithful, I have always considered myself to be spiritual rather than religious; but many recent life events have led me to re-examine religion and explore it on my own terms.  Rifling through my writing archives this evening, I stumbled upon this response to an email conversation with a colleague on this topic during Lent last year:

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, circa Easter 1911

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, circa Easter 1911

Recent events in the realm of reproductive health as well as a thoughtful examination of the core values of many of the world’s organized religions are exhibitive of the powerful role that religious leaders can play in preventing the transmission of HIV.  The everyday lives of many individuals and communities around the world are informed by their religion’s teachings; and as religious leaders are guided unwaveringly by their sacred text, they themselves are viewed as trusted and unfailing sources of information and advisement.  For many people in developing countries, western medicine’s scientific evidence is associated with the “White regime” and considered to be highly suspect in comparison to the irrefutable, sacred text of their religion and the advice of their religious leaders.

I have the pleasure of working with a group of HIV-positive mothers in Dakar, Senegal; and at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning, imams in Senegal officially declared their support for contraception, including condoms.  These islamic leaders are deeply respected as steadfast holy men who lead their communities throughout their lives, offering guidance and support through birth, marriage and death; and the imams explained their show of support by stating, “What’s good for a woman is good for her family, and for her society.  We want healthy societies.”

I was personally raised in the Catholic faith, and I was taught both in church and in my Catholic school that being a good Catholic means showing respect and care for those around us.  I firmly believe that condom use exemplifies the deep care and respect that one has for oneself, as well as one’s partner.  Using a condom demonstrates a belief in the right that every person has to live a full and healthy life, the right to plan a family and the right to choose what is best for ourselves and our own bodies.

When considering religious institutions such as Islam and Catholicism, using condoms is not against their core values – it supports them.  Pope Benedict XVI has even stated, “where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, [condom use] can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality.”

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In transit

In transit

On Tuesday morning two weeks ago, I arrived in Cairo with my colleague.  After a brief lunch at the one and only restaurant open during Ramadan…

Our driver Ibrahim, fasting at McDonalds

Our driver Ibrahim, fasting at McDonalds

… we arrived at our meeting with an AIDS service organization with whom we had the pleasure of working in the winter of 2009.  The organization in Cairo, which for the safety of their staff and beneficiaries will remain anonymous in this post, is doing truly incredible work with key populations in their community.  They began as the only outreach program for female sex workers in Cairo in 2006, piloted new programming in 2007 and, having gained experience and momentum in their work, are now scaling up their activities with generous support from The United Nations Population Fund, UNAIDS, UNICEF and the National AIDS Program.

In our meeting

In our meeting

Carrying condoms is not technically illegal in Egypt; but if you are unmarried and found to be in possession of condoms, they are used as evidence against you to prove that you are engaging in sex work (which is absolutely illegal). This makes it extremely difficult for anyone to have access to condoms when they might need them. This incredible organization provides legal aid and advice on how to handle the law if you are stopped at a check point and found to be carrying condoms, with lawyers who believe in their cause volunteering on their 24-hour hotline. They also provide condom distribution to the general public, as their belief is that anyone who may engage in sexual activity has the right to protect themselves.

Informational booklet about the Egyptian sex trade

Informational booklet about the Egyptian sex trade

During the Egyptian revolution, our colleague from this organization slept in Tahir Square for 18 days. He told us that the revolution actually made his job much easier – shouting about the cause was easier, the slum areas were more accessible for outreach, and reaching female sex workers for education was less restrictive.  They were able to further their interpersonal education initiatives and pubic focus groups, talking to bus drivers and sex workers about HIV, AIDS, safer sex and condoms.

Cairo at dusk

Cairo at dusk

But with the growing instability in Tahir Square, the organization had to eventually move its drop-in center back to a slightly less centralized location in Cairo.  Since the revolution, the government has been shutting down certain specialized initiatives, such as coalitions for MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), anti-stigma organizations and alliances for “out positives.”  But our partner organization is forging ahead, including guidance counseling for sex workers looking to transition out of the profession and into a new line of work.

Arabic anti-sexual harassment campaign on Facebook

Arabic anti-sexual harassment campaign on Facebook

After our meeting came to a close, I felt newly inspired.  I had a renewed desire to continue fighting for equality and the creation of a climate in which people can ask questions and discuss who they are and what they want openly, without fear of negative repercussions as a result of long-standing societal “norms.” 

I feel so privileged to be able to travel as I do for my work.  Meeting these incredible people who are fighting in nearly impossible terrain for rights that many of us take for granted is a constant reminder that our world has so much further to come.  And if we all continue to do what we canbe a positive influence on the children in our lives, encourage those around us to ask questions and challenge assumptions, offer support in any way we can to organizations and individuals striving toward these goalswe will get there.

Cairo, illuminated

Cairo, illuminated

In the marketplace

In the marketplace

Before sunset

Before sunset


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… my 2nd guest blog post for SexAndSensibilities.com

According to researchers, the average condom purchase takes only 7 seconds. I know that people might be embarrassed about buying condoms; they might dread seeing a sideways glance from a fellow customer or feel nervous at the thought of an elderly pharmacist at the cash register… but rushing in and out in only 7 seconds?!? Can you really make a good choice about what condoms to buy in only 7 seconds?

I conducted a brief experiment to find out.

I tasked a small group of my friends to make their way into one of our friendly neighborhood pharmacies here in New York City, find the condom section, then spend no more than 7 seconds deciding which ones to purchase.  Their selections were not only disappointing, but they potentially put their personal safety and sexual pleasure at great risk.

Specific results of the 7-second condom experiment:

One friend proudly chose a box of condoms made by a very well-reputed condom company, but she did not realize why the words “climax control” were printed on the cover.  This particular type of condom contains a desensitizing agent, designed to slightly numb the head of the penis – this is a great option for people who are seeking to lengthen the duration of sexual activity… and an unpleasant surprise for those who are not expecting to be numbed.

Another friend emerged from the pharmacy with a box of lambskin condoms.  These are much more difficult to find than latex condoms, but they do exist… Little did my friend know that lambskin condoms are only effective in pregnancy prevention, but are not to be used to prevent sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.

And yet another friend produced a box of condoms that was, quite simply, expired.  He had just failed to take the time to check the expiration date printed on the side of the package.  Just as grocery stores may forget to take every single carton of expired milk off the refrigerator shelves, a pharmacist might miss a box of recently expired condoms.  Make it your job to know the quality of what you are buying.

All of these mistakes could have been avoided by doing one very simple thing: taking the time to read the condom packageI understand that shopping for condoms can be difficult and we might want to rush through it for many reasons, but it really does pay to muster up some courage and take your time.

To help you find the perfect condoms quickly and easily, I have created a simple checklist for the SASsy woman and her partner to make condom shopping easier and more efficient.  Just follow these guidelines and you’ll be in and out of there in no time, with the appropriate prophylactic for you!

The SASsy Woman’s Guide to Buying Condoms

✔ Are the condoms expired? Be sure to check the expiration date printed on the condom’s package.  If the expiration date has passed, then do not buy it!

✔ Has the condom package has been opened or damaged?
1) Check the package for holes or tears, 2) make sure it is still sealed shut and 3) shake the box so that you know there are definitely condoms inside.  People may have difficulty buying condoms, but they seem to find stealing them quite easy.

What is the condom made of? The most common types of condoms are made of latex, but in many countries condoms can also be made from synthetic materials (including polyurethane, nitrile and polyisoprene).  Latex and synthetic condoms, when used correctly, help to prevent both unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.

Condoms made from animal products, such as lambskin, are only to be used to prevent unintended pregnancy – they will not help to prevent sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. If you would like to try a naturalskin condom, you should:

1) be in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship
2) have the same definition of “monogamy” as your partner, and
3) be tested and knowledgeable about your STI status

If you can, I definitely recommend using latex condoms – they are widely available and come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, textures, flavors and even with enhanced lubricants.  If you are latex-sensitive but still need to guard against sexually transmitted infections, condoms made of synthetic materials are your best option.

What size condoms are you looking for? Condoms are available in a snugger, slimmer fit, a standard size or a larger, roomier fit.   Start with a standard size condom, then experiment if necessary – it is best to find the condom that most comfortably fits your (or your partner’s) body shape for maximum pleasure, and to ensure that it does not slip off or become damaged during use.

Now that you have the basics covered, it is time to ask yourself What else do you want from your condom, besides protection?

✩ Are you looking for texture? Condoms with ribs, dots or other pleasurable meshes are available with textures along the outside (for the receptive partner), the inside(for the penetrative partner) or on both the inside and outside of the condom.

✩ Are you looking for a different shape? Almost any condom that flares or gives extra space around the head of the penis can enhance sensation for both partners.  Anatomically shaped condoms are also available if you prefer a smooth, seamless fit.

✩ Are you looking for condoms with a special lubricant? Many latex condoms are also available with an enhanced lubricant.  Some contain the soothing additive aloe vera; others contain a climax control agent, designed to lengthen the duration of sexual activity.  Many people enjoy condoms with a stimulating additive, such as those that produce a warm sensation or condoms that produce a cool, tingling effect.

A quick re-cap of what to avoid:
✖ Nonoxynol-9 (also known as spermicide or N-9), because it has proven to be an irritant for both men & women
✖ Novelty condoms, which do not protect against unintended pregnancy or STIs

And a final word of advice:  Never let anyone make you feel badly about buying condoms, because you are only doing what is best for you and your partner!  Always remember that.

I hope that you will find this guide helpful 🙂  Happy shopping!   xojl

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