Covering Condoms: A Notoriously Slippery Subject

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Writing about condoms presents a conundrum. Reproductive health is serious, but condoms are almost guaranteed giggle-inducers. So covering a new line of condoms that are available in 60 different sizes was a bit of a balancing act.

On the one hand, there’s the public health importance of a new attempt to boost use of condoms, which, although they protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, are worn by only a third of American men. On the other hand, condoms are, frankly, funny. Fortunately, in nearly nine years covering health and science, I have reported on many topics that can be delicate or awkward for people to discuss.

I also know (I mean, my job has required me to learn) a lot about condoms. For instance, for a 2013 article about efforts to craft more pleasurable condoms, I had to collect glow-in-the-dark condoms, piña colada-flavored condoms and vibrating condom rings. (I ordered the “Obama Condoms Stimulus Package,” expensing the cost without editors even batting an eye.) And during an interview at her office in New York City, a United Nations Population Fund official gave me condom brooches — pins of batik fabric with condoms on the back, meant to help women in Africa carry condoms discreetly.

Reporting the custom-fit condom article added specimens to my stash, including the longest, shortest, widest and thinnest of the 60 sizes. I also received bright orange 3D plastic models for those sizes, which, clustered together, resemble a miniature skyline or calliope pipes.

Condom journalism isn’t exactly undercover reporting. I learned of proposed measure-to-fit condoms from a reproductive health researcher, and later the company contacted me while preparing to launch.

Undergirding the story was the striking fact, confirmed by experts and studies, that standard condoms have long been too long for many men. Would providing nine circumferences and 10 lengths inspire more men to use condoms at the 11th hour?

Of course there’s humor in sex-related subjects. But there should be sensitivity too, so my reporting approach didn’t waver from its normal course: Be respectful and nonjudgmental. It’s possible to be considerate, empathetic and amused at the same time.

Since custom condoms were new to America, it was challenging to find people with firsthand experience. So I asked the company to ask if any customers would allow me to contact them. Two men did, answering my questions with admirable candor.

I also wanted to find men independently. After various efforts, I heeded a sex researcher’s advice to contact a Reddit group for men who call their penises small. Some members were wary. “Who are you bro, I doubt your legitimacy,” one wrote, adding, “What articles have you written pertaining to the issues of sex and other taboo topics?” But when I described some of my stories, he replied, “Thanks for clearing my concerns up.”

Another suggested I was fishing in a shallow pond, saying that “most of us here don’t suffer from too much sex.” But several men gave unvarnished answers via private message.

When interviewing condom creators or users by phone, I found private spaces in the newsroom. Not that I was embarrassed, but conversations about penis dimensions and sex might sound startling or funny to colleagues, and I worried interview subjects might hear someone’s inadvertent chuckles.

When writing the story, my goal was to be straightforward but not racy. Sex stories have occasionally made some editors squeamish, and sometimes sexual vocabulary has been sanitized. But discussing sexual health with clarity can help people learn things they may be uncomfortable asking about. It can help remove tinges of shame or salaciousness from a basic human behavior.

In the condom context, even anodyne sentences can contain unintentional double entendres. Ron Frezieres, a longtime expert, said “there’s a lot of gymnastics involved in doing condom research.” Davin Wedel, the custom condom company president, said, about poor condom fit, “We’re trying to address it head on.”

An incorrigible punster, I tried to be corrigible, refraining (mostly) from wordplay. I did suggest the following headline — because of its high-minded allusions to Plato and Martin Luther King Jr., of course: “Will Custom-Fit Condoms Take the Measure of a Man?”

And I confess to not protesting (much) when editors used the “size matters” headline. After all, it does capture the long and short of it.