The XX Factor

Condoms, More Than 10,000 Years Old, Are Too “Modern” for Mike Pence

Mike Pence wouldn’t approve of these Trump rubbers, shown on sale at a GOP rally in Valdosta, Georgia, in February.

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is the perfect running mate for a candidate who has pledged to “Make America Great Again,” in other words, to pull our country back in time, as Buzzfeed reminded us on Thursday by digging up some comments Pence made back in 2002. The gist: Even the George W. Bush administration was too “modern” and “liberal” for our would-be VP.

In his comments, Pence—who has pushed radically anti-women and anti-abortion legislation, as my colleague Christina Cauterucci has written—was pooh-poohing basic sexual health practices. Pence was responding to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell articulating his support for condom usage in an MTV forum. Powell said, “I think it’s important for young people, especially, to protect themselves from the possibility of acquiring any sexually transmitted disease, but especially to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, which is a plague that is upon the face of the earth.”

Pence disagreed. On CNN, he told Wolf Blitzer that Powell’s comments marked a “sad day” for the Bush administration, continuing:

The truth is that Colin Powell had an opportunity here to reaffirm this president’s commitment to abstinence as the best choice for our young people, and he chose not to do that. … The other part is that, frankly, condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases, and in that sense, Wolf, this was—the secretary of state may be inadvertently misleading millions of young people and endangering lives. … The problem is it was too modern of an answer, Wolf. It was—it truly was a modern, liberal answer to a problem that parents like me are facing all over America, and frankly, all over the world.

It’s easy to debunk Pence’s claim that “condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases.” The CDC informs Americans that, though “[a]ccurately estimating the effectiveness of condoms for prevention of STDs … is methodologically challenging,” we can still say with confidence that “when used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV infection and reduce the risk of other STDs.” One study that attempted to measure condom effectiveness, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics in 2005, found that correct and consistent use of condoms reduced the risk of gonorrhea by 90 percent and the risk of chlamydia by 60 percent. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that condoms reduced the likelihood of HIV transmission by 78 percent. Condoms aren’t the only defense against STIs—when it comes to HIV, for example, public health professionals are increasingly optimistic about the preventative pill Truvada—but they’re one of the best, the cheapest, and the easiest to use.

And, contra Pence, condoms are anything but “modern.” A whole range of ancient cultures has laid claim to their invention, and a famous cave painting in Dordogne, France—which shows a man practicing safe sex circa 11,000 B.C.—has been interpreted as proof that at least some of our ancestors believed in covering up. A paper titled “The history of the condom,” from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, explores this humble prophylactic’s mythic past:

It is possible that a male or female sheath or both was used in Imperial Rome, but no evidence exists beyond a legend … in which goats’ bladder served as a female sheath. … The earliest description of the condom was by the great Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio in 1564, published 2 years after his death. He claimed to have invented a linen sheath, made to fit the glans and it was worn for protection against syphilis. He tried it on 1100 men, no more, no less—not one became infected. … The word condom first appeared in print in 1706 in a poem by Lord Belhaven, then in a book by Daniel Turner in 1717. … Casanova (1725-1798) mentioned condoms several times in his exhaustive memoirs. However, he was not enthusiastic about them.

Rubber replaced animal intestines in the 1850 and ‘60s, and latex replaced rubber in the 1920s. (As Slate’s L.V. Anderson has written, we’re overdue for a new condom—one that actually feels good.) Condom use truly caught on in the U.S. and Europe with the discovery of HIV/AIDS. Just a couple of decades later, Pence griped on CNN that condoms were too “modern” and “liberal” for America. But if Trump’s VP pick wants to rewind the clock to before people were using this particular precaution to keep themselves safe from STIs, he’ll have to go back very far indeed—several millenniums at least, depending on which history you believe.