Why Color-Changing Condoms Aren’t the Solution to Reducing STIs

The social media resurgence of a 2015 TIME Magazine article entitled, “Condoms That Change Color In Contact with STD Win Tech Award,” has sparked strong reactions from many, including myself. While the majority seem to view this invention as a step forward for sex education, I view this as further reinforcing the stigmas of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and fostering fear in sharing conversations about our sexual health with potential partners—all while bolstering penetrative sex.

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Getty Images

The external condom (called S.T.EYE), designed by three British teenagers, claims to use antibodies to detect antigens of various sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Upon contact with an STI, the condom would change color depending on which infection it detected. The group of teen inventors claim that they, “…wanted to make something that made detecting harmful STIs safer than ever before, so that people can take immediate action in the privacy of their own homes without the often-scary procedures at the doctors” (IFLScience). The infections are not the problem—it’s our dissemination of incomplete and outdated sex education, lack of communication, and misunderstanding of the associated risks of being sexually active.

These teens’ implied assertion of STI screening panels as unsafe exemplifies perceived stigma at work, which is easily identifiable through their interpretation of screening procedures as “scary.” Despite the fact that 1 in 2 sexually active persons will contract an STI before age 25, society still assigns those who test positive with a scarlet letter (ASHA). Even though young persons account for half of newly diagnosed STIs, only 12% of this population was tested in the last year (Cuffe,Newton-Levinson, Gift, McFarlane, & Leichliter, 2016). The fear of having, living, and disclosing the shame of carrying an STI is one of the main reasons that people are not being tested.

Generally, professionals recommend that sexually active persons be tested at least once per year, and more if they are having sex with multiple partners. If you are sexually active, you should be tested with each new partner. If you are rekindling things with a partner that you’ve been sexual with in the past, you should be retested. If you are engaging in unprotected sex, you should be tested. The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) outlines The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) general recommendations in their guide which is organized by infection and population group, but these may change depending upon your personal risk factors. Although many STIs often remain asymptomatic, the CDC does not recommend screening for individuals who do not show symptoms. I believe that this screening recommendation does a disservice to our sexual health and autonomy. The CDC inadvertently strengthens STI stigma and maintains the consistent fear associated with having an infection by not instilling a sense of obligation for sexually active persons to be routinely tested.

This prototype operates within the means of the socially ascribed stigmas of sexually transmitted infections and further commits to their preservation. It bolsters the outdated rhetoric of ‘clean versus dirty’ which attributes shame to those who test positive for infection. Although blissfully unaware of the S.T.EYE’s potential to perpetuate stigma, the inventors do acknowledge that some consumers may not want to know that they have herpes (even though most of the world has either HSV-1 or HSV-2)—so that infection may not be included if the product comes to fruition (Washington Post, 2015). Upon a user’s discovery that the condom changes colors, they will likely be faced with immediate internal shame, as well as their partner’s. This presents a dangerous confrontation of enacted stigma, which includes rejection and, in some cases, physical assaults. Contrary to the teens’ belief that their invention will ensure “more responsible” behavior, they neglect the inclusivity required for effective change.

Not all sexually active persons partake in penis play. Since this external condom caters to penis populations, it further pays homage to penetrative behavior and reinforces the sexual division of power (Wingood & DiClemente, 1998). The sexual division of power includes power-related issues within heterosexual relationships related to authority, control, and coercion (Wingood & DiClemente, 1998). A fellow colleague, Kaci A. Mial, M.Ed., reminded me that condom negotiation is already a challenging task for a number of populations, especially those who may already be in an abusive relationship. The S.T.EYE condom could potentially give abusers a means of shaming and policing their partners.

Condoms, whether STI detecting or not, do not replace conversations that we should be having with our partners about sex and consent. Condoms do not prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections, they are only able to reduce the risk. If we are not routinely tested and communicating with our partners about our STI status, we need to educate ourselves and accept the risks that come along with being sexually active. I fear that if popularized, the S.T.EYE condoms may contribute to risky behaviors, additional shame, potential partner violence, and further reluctance for folks to advocate for their sexual health.

Additional References
Cuffe, K.M.,Newton-Levinson, A., Gift, T.L.,McFarlane, M., & Leichliter, J.S. (2016). Sexually Transmitted Infection Testing Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(5), 512-519.

DePadilla, L., Windle, M., Wingood, G., Cooper, H., & DiClemente, R. (2011). Condom use among young women: modeling the theory of gender and power. Health Psychology, 30(3), 310-319.

Wingood, G.M., & DiClemente, R.J. (1998). Partner influences and gender-related factors associated with noncondom use among adult African American women. American Journal of Community Psychology, 26(1), 29-51.