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Cops give out condoms, lollipops and flip flops – but is this the right way to reduce STIs?

August 5th, 2008

Dr Petra

Yes, you did hear me right. UK cops are giving out condoms to young women as part of their ‘night safe’ bag giveaway campaign.

The bags contain lollipops, flip flops, condoms and rape alarms in a bid to keep drunken revellers safer. The flip flops will help those staggering on high heels, the lollipops will apparently increase blood sugar while keeping people quiet and the condoms are presumably to increase safer sex practice. I’m not sure what I make of the inclusion of the rape alarms in the kits as they imply attacks will come from strangers, whereas we know most women who’ve been assaulted while drunk are usually the victim of an attack by someone who they’ve already met, or perhaps know well.

A man’s bag is also available. This will contain water and lollipops. But, apparently, no condoms.

According to York police who are running the scheme the bags have been positively recieved. They’ve distributed 5000 and plan to give out more.

It’s always tricky with interventions like this to know whether they really ‘work’. Often those providing free condoms (and other goodies) count their success rate on how many items they distribute. Unfortunately we know from health promotion that simply giving out items (particularly condoms) has little bearing on subsequent use.

In this case it’s particularly difficult to measure anything effectively since it’s likely most people taking the packs will be drunk. It’s not difficult to get drunk people to accept freebies. Although it is mightily difficult to get them to use condoms correctly.

Often condoms that are just handed to people will be kept but not used, discarded or played with. Rather than just giving out condoms people need to know when to put them on, how to put them on, how to take them off after sex and appropriate disposal. They also need to know how to negotiate using a condom – particularly with women who often feel judged for carrying condoms or suggesting their use.

There is little point in just giving condoms out to women, as is the case here. To truly launch a safer sex initiative you have to target both genders. Giving women the condoms places the responsibility for sexual management on them, and provides an unfair and unbalanced message about safer sex.

I’m all for promoting safer sex, but I’m not sure that pairing condoms, rape alarms and flip flops are necessarily the best way to go. Or that police handing out packs will automatically lead to condom use. Hopefully the scheme will be evaluated carefully so we can find out more than just how many packs were distributed – but whether this led to an increase in condom use and a decrease in STIs.

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