Researchers at institutions like UCSF's AID's Research Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that condoms, used correctly and consistently, effectively prevent the spread of HIV with a very low failure rate. In a 1993 data review, the CDC declared that "consistent male condom users have a two percent failure rate," citing an armful of studies to back up that conclusion. In one study of mixed-status heterosexual couples, none of 123 HIV-negative partners who used condoms consistently seroconverted, compared to 12 of 122 who didn't. "Prevention messages," the CDC concluded, "must highlight the importance of consistent and correct condom use."
But that isn't the message students get from abstinence-only instruction. An article in the "Teen Cafe" section of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse Web site warns of a "15 percent [condom] failure rate," adding, "Condoms can slip and break. They also can leak. Even the experts aren't certain condoms can guarantee against sexual transmission of the HIV virus." SIECUS found numerous examples of similarly exaggerated condom failure statistics in its analysis of nine abstinence-only curricula -- including several from agencies just given federal grants.
The reason for such different figures is explained in an analysis of condom failure data appearing in the February 1999 journal Health Education and Behavior. "Some authors incorrectly use existing research to misinform the public," write authors Clara Haignere, Rachel Gold and Heather McDaniel, citing "many examples of misused or misrepresented research."
These misrepresentations usually confuse method failure with user failure. Method failure occurs when a condom breaks or leaks due to flaws in the latex; user failure occurs when individuals use condoms incorrectly or inconsistently. The CDC has documented that the overwhelming majority of condom failures are user failures, but abstinence-only materials commonly blur or ignore these distinctions. Critics say it amounts to public health malpractice for abstinence-only curricula to discourage condom use by highlighting high failure rates while failing to inform students that most of those failures stem from improper use and then failing to teach students how to use them correctly.
NAC's Unruh insists it's "absolutely not true" that her group promotes misleading statistics. "The research is there that says that condoms don't work." Critics like SIECUS, she says, "have a different worldview than we do."
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