The pope and condoms – a new dawn?


“…a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility”

The pope has reportedly said that the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection is acceptable in certain exceptional circumstances, giving the example of a prostitute using a condom to avoid passing on HIV infection to others, and assuming that this is merely a first step towards that prostitute (I prefer the term sex worker) adopting a more “moral” way of living.  It is headline news around the world and UNAIDS was quick to issue a statement welcoming the announcement.Some reports state that he specifically used the example of a male sex worker, although it may be simply a case of the noun in the original German text being a masculine one.

This may be significant since if he was using the example of male sex workers and if he was assuming that the male sex worker in question was having sex with another man the use of a condom would in any case not have a contraceptive effect (i.e. prevention of pregnancy).  So it could mean that he is still not endorsing condoms during sexual encounters where a new life might potentially be created – after all, the Catholic position on condoms was originally to do with its opposition to contraception. 

Raises more questions than it answers 

If the Pope was talking about sexual encounters that cannot feasibly result in conception, this is worrying since it means that most vaginal sexual encounters between a man and a woman are excluded.  On the other hand, if this is the correct interpretation of what he said, one might ask whether his acceptance of condoms would also apply for oral and anal sex between men and women?

Another important question to ask, whatever the precise significance of the example used by the Pope, is whether he was talking solely about HIV or also about other sexually transmitted infections?  Many STIs other than HIV also constitute major public health problems.  Is preventing these less acceptable than preventing HIV?

Whether the Pope is talking about male or female sex workers or both, the implication (again assuming that the English translation is reliable) is that it is acceptable for sex workers to use condoms to avoid transmitting HIV infection to someone else.  This suggests that the direction of travel for HIV transmission is invariably from sex workers to others – a suggestion that is both incorrect and stigmatising.  I wonder also if it implies that condom use is acceptable when the sex worker knows that they are HIV positive but not when they don’t know.  Irrespective of this however, it is troubling that in a statement that makes much of the notion of “sexual responsibility”, it appears that the Pope is placing the responsibility for preventing HIV transmission squarely with one party: the sex worker or, if we take a wider interpretation, the partner infected with HIV.  This contradicts years of work aimed at reinforcing the notion of mutual responsibility, and aimed at combating the incrimination and in some cases the criminalisation of people with HIV for onward transmission of HIV.

No change on attitudes to sexual health, women’s rights or contraception

Subject to clarification of the questions above, we may be seeing a positive shift in the Vatican’s position on condoms in relation to HIV transmission.  But let’s not get carried away.  The statement was couched in language that shows that nothing has changed in respect of the Church’s attitude to sexuality – which remains deeply moralistic and disconnected from the real lives of people.  According to excerpts on the BBC website the Pope said:

…the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

Moreover, nothing has changed in the Church’s stance on contraception, the consequences of which are also incredibly damaging at many levels.  It remains fundamentally opposed to guaranteeing peoples’ right to choose how and when to have children. If the impact of HIV is important enough for the Church to do some soul-searching, surely the impact of unwanted pregnancies is too?

 Any optimism as a result of this news should be guarded.  As I have argued previously, it is in any case extremely naive to gauge the impact of the Vatican’s teaching purely in terms of how it influences peoples’ sexual behaviour.  The Catholic Church (and other denominations) continue to administer a significant proportion of public and private health care provision across the world, and in particular in sub-saharan Africa.  Don’t expect them all to start supplying human rights based, comprehensive sexuality education.  And definitely don’t expect them to start supplying condoms, whether it is to all-comers, to people living with HIV, or to male sex workers.




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