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August 23, 2005

Shooting blanks

Just got around to reading Mark Steyn's article from the August 12 Western Standard, and there's something of a howler in there. After resurrecting and making far too much of the Miss Universe/Nathan Phillips Square cock-up, he comes up with this:

The lifetime risk of getting lung cancer from smoking is about one in ten. By comparison, a condom has a failure rate for sexually transmitted agents of over 30%. That’s not like smoking, that’s not a deferred risk way down the road for a guy with a 20-condom-a-day habit for half-a-century; that’s the risk on the condom you’re wearing now.

If that sounds pretty much alright to you, you might need to give your head a shake. Like in a paint mixer, maybe. Condoms have a 30 percent failure rate for STDs, do they? Doesn't that seem a little, you know, unbelievably fucking high?

Steyn is probably getting this second- or third-hand from a University of Texas meta-analysis study published in July 1993, in the journal Social Science and Medicine (see abstract here). It is widely quoted on pro-life and paleo-Catholic websites and equally widely poo-pooed on the sex-ed websites of several famous universities.

Allow me to quote from the Discussion section of the study in question:

An obvious limitation in many of these studies is in the definition of condom use. What is "regular use," "consistent use" vs "any unprotected vaginal intercourse?" Are condoms being used correctly? Is recall of sexual behavior over 6 months, 1 year, or 2 year period accurate? Could infection by HIV have occurred prior to initiation of condom use?… Results may also be confounded by degree of exposure, e.g. degree of intermittent condom use [i.e., not using a condom! –ed.]…

One realizes rather quickly that this widely quoted study isn't talking about condoms breaking or allowing HIV to seep through their miniscule pores — well, it is talking about that, to the extent that this occurs — but rather examining the correlation between condom use, however inept, and HIV transmission. I saw no factors in my brief perusal of the study — which is way the hell over my head, I hasten to add — that could ever underrepresent the actual "failure rate," and a great many that would overrepresent it (see above).

Most crucially for those pausing mid-tearopen, all of the studies that Susan C. Weller examined treated user error as condom failure. I'm not accusing her of anything — this is all freely admitted, and valuable information for social scientists. For laymen, however, it's far simpler: use a condom properly, every time, and your risk can be broken down to two very answerable questions:
1. Is the orifice into which the condom is about to enter diseased? Is the penis within the condom? If no to both questions, you may safely confine your worrying to the spectre of an unwanted pregnancy.
2. If yes, or unknown, how likely is it that this condom is going to rupture, or that the diseases in the orifice/penis are smaller than the smallest "hole" in the condom?

In reference to 2., I remain quite confident that the answers are "not very" and "that doesn't sound like something Church & Dwight's legal department would like very much." I'd say take your chances and enjoy. And to Mark Steyn, I'd recommend twisting the facts only when it suits his grander purposes — there's no point getting called out on the small stuff.

Posted by Chris Selley at August 23, 2005 12:07 AM

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It's even worse than you say - the "failure rate" was for *regular use* of condoms over a non-trivial period of time and thus includes such "failures" as "Oh, I don't feel like getting up and going to the bathroom to get a condom, it'll be all right just this once."

To state that this is the "risk of the condom you're wearing now" is an outright falsehood.

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