Condoms: what makes them hard to talk about and even harder to use? On 30 November 2021, a livestream of the series “Po Pravde Govorya” (Telling the Truth) hosted by UNAIDS, UNESCO, Odnoklassniki (OK.RU) social network and Domashny Ochag magazine featured experts and celebrity guests discussing common myths, misconceptions, challenges and fears related to condom negotiation and use, with a special focus on gender aspects such as women’s ability to protect their reproductive health and to choose the protection method. The show broadcast on the eve of the World AIDS Day received more than a million views.
“Love does not relieve you from responsibility”
Is it true that #condomskillpleasure? Who should buy and offer them – men or women? Do partners trusting each other need to use condoms? How has the (lack of) condom use contributed to the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia? The show guests explored these and other questions using examples from their personal experience and professional practice.
Natalya Ladnaya, Senior Researcher at the Federal Research Institute of Epidemiology’s AIDS Prevention and Control Unit, clarified any remaining issues as to whether condoms can reliably protect against HIV and STIs and whether using them in a long-term relationship makes sense.
“By now, HIV has spilled over from vulnerable groups to the general population. In recent years, almost 70% of all new HIV infections have occurred through heterosexual contact. Particularly at risk are women 35+ who are looking for a partner, as well as men and women who are no longer concerned about contraception, do not use condoms, and thus get infected with HIV”
Maria Godlevskaya who has lived with HIV for 22 years and is now helping other women as a peer counsellor with E.V.A. network, shared her personal story of falling in love, trusting her partner unconditionally and contracting HIV, and stressed the role which condoms played in her story. She notes that many women she encounters as a peer counsellor today are embarrassed to carry a condom, because “having a condom in my purse means that I am available for sex” – and some are afraid to offend their partner by appearing distrustful or refusing sex.
“Both end up being victims,” says Maria. “Should a man insist on having sex without a condom, a woman must be prepared to say firmly, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but no condom – no sex’.”
Marina Travkova, family psychotherapist, offers advice on how adult couples can deal with the psychological barriers to discussing sex and contraception, overcome awkwardness and build trusting relationships. In addition, Marina emphasizes the importance of open and honest discussion of “awkward” issues with teens. She explains that teens are very susceptible to society’s stereotypes on what is considered “acceptable” for men and women in sexual relations. Therefore, they can be as vulnerable as adults to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Reliable information is rarely available. Parents should talk to teens about gender socialization and sexual health. I am also in favor of mandatory sexuality education in high school and following the example of countries making condoms available in school toilets. I always remind my sons as they are going out: ‘wallet, phone, brains, condom’. We did not get this education growing up, but we should educate ourselves so we may then educate our children and save them from many problems in the future”
Grisha Tumanov, journalist and author of the “Man, Where Are You Going?” (“Мужчина, вы куда?”) podcast, discussed some of the reasons why men refuse to use condoms and what men think about women offering condoms to them. According to Tumanov, both men and women need to learn how to communicate as a couple and take care of each other’s health.
“We do not know how to discuss sensitive topics. We have grown up in an environment where they are not discussed. We need to start talking about our expectations from relationships, including sexual ones. Love does not relieve you from responsibility. This is not how it works in adult life. You are responsible for each other”
The celebrity guest of the show, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Vera Brezhneva recalls that many women who are now part of a vulnerable group for HIV were born and raised in the USSR where “there was no sex” and safer sex was never mentioned. “I knew nothing about HIV and AIDS. What we feared most was pregnancy. But we believed in the power of love to protect you from anything bad. There was no sex education at all. No one explained to us that the purpose of condoms was not to protect us from a man or from a woman but to prevent infection.”
“I feel too awkward mentioning it”
Specially for the show, an online survey* was conducted in collaboration between OK and ResearchMe on what Runet users think of using protection during intimacy and what “safer sex” means to them.
It turns out that 87% of the survey respondents have engaged in unprotected sex without a condom, and the older the respondents, the higher the percentage: 70% for those aged 30 and younger, 80% for the 31 to 40 group, and up to 99% of Runet users aged 41 and older.
The most common reasons for not using condoms during intercourse include “awkwardness” (41% total, 46% female and 34% male respondents), followed by trusting one’s partner (35%), discomfort during intercourse (20%), fear of “ruining the romance” (31%), and fear of being misunderstood by the partner (19%).
*The online survey was completed by 1,050 people aged 18 to 60.
“Po Pravde Govorya” (Telling the Truth) is an educational talk show series provided by UNESCO IITE and UNAIDS Regional Office, with support from Odnoklassniki social media network. Each livestream features a straightforward, honest and open discussion with experts and celebrity guests focused on a pressing issue relevant to our health and well-being in an ever-changing world.