This Feb. 14, 2013 file photo, a sample of condoms distributed freely by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in 28 countries is displayed at a news conference at the AHF headquarters in Los Angeles.
( AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi, everybody. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Remember this?
Unknown Female: Hey, you want to know how to protect something, you wrap it up. Do you want to protect it? You wrap it up. You want to protect it? Wrap it up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, that 1994 Trojan commercial featuring a suburban mom on a plastic-covered couch while explaining that you just need to--
Unknown Female: Wrap it up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is a classic. It's a reminder that in the 1990s battling the HIV epidemic required no-nonsense messaging. To clear the fog of homophobic misinformation that characterized so much of the 1980s' public discourse about HIV/AIDS. By the way--
Unknown Female: Wrap it up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is damn good advice. Condoms are super effective at protecting against a whole host of highly transmissible infections, which is why I'm thinking maybe those 1994 ad-makers need to have a little sit-down conversation with the CDC. COVID-19 cases in the United States are on the rise. According to STAT, July has seen cases increase at the most rapid pace since last winter. Given that vaccination rates are slowing, maybe it’s time for the CDC to send a clear public health message, we were kind of thinking maybe something like this.
Unknown Female: Mask it up. Want to protect them? Mask it up. Want to protect you? Mask it up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here to help us understand what lessons current public health leaders can learn from sexual health educators is Martha Kempner, sexual health expert and author of the weekly newsletter Sex on Wednesdays. Martha, thanks so much for being here.
Martha Kempner: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, you wrote that you have been a condom evangelist for much of your life. Are you now a face mask evangelist?
Martha Kempner: I think I am. I grew up in a time when HIV was just beginning and we were just learning about it and we got really clear messages. This is scary, this is deadly and you have to wear a condom. You have to wear a condom every time you have sex until you are in a committed relationship and you can define that how you want but it has to be a relationship where you're not bringing in risk from other people and you both get tested.
I think that my cohort of friends really did that but when you look at people who are older than me and younger than me, the messages got more muddled earlier because there wasn't HIV and later because it became less of a deadly disease and more of a chronic manageable condition. I think that condom rates show those muddled messages.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Martha, I feel like you must be ex-gen like me, I was in college in '90 to '94, and the messages were clear.
Martha Kempner: Yes, it was clear. You use a condom then-- It was almost like, I don't know, maybe it was like the Facebook equivalent of putting your-- We're in a relationship, you went and got tested together even sometimes and that's when you could stop using condoms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That said, it's not that it was ever completely easy to have those conversations. Because, look, for many people and by many positions right, sex simply feels better without condoms in the way that life feels better without a mask. How does public health messaging breakthrough our basic hedonism to do what feels good?
Martha Kempner: Yes, it's hard. I think one of the things that we do wrong though we have to acknowledge, yes, we get it you don't want to wear a condom. Yes, we get it you rather not wear a face mask, but I think we also have to acknowledge that we don't have to push that message as hard as we do. We often come at it with such a negative, we’re so convinced people don't want to do it that we overcompensate kind of emphasize the negative. Like, "Yes, okay, you don't want to wear it but here's a great condom."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now this is not a perfect one-to-one example. In the clearest ways, how is it that masks are different from condoms?
Martha Kempner: Well, for one thing, they're public. You only have to talk to your partner about whether you're wearing a condom, only your partner really knows whether you're wearing a condom. Masks have become a public statement of how you- or really, of your politics. I think that's very different because, in addition to fighting against people just not wanting to wear them, we’re fighting a little bit of an identity politics battle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It felt to me for a bit before the vaccine, that there was an upswing around the fashion aspect. That masks were becoming a statement and you saw all of these innovations and that capitalism was doing what it does and getting in there and making masking interesting. Have we lost that? Again, for all the struggles we may have around marketing and consumption, that part felt like it was doing a good public health service.
Martha Kempner: I totally agree and I hope we haven't lost it. Everyone was making masks from Target to the Gap or whoever and I think that that's really helpful. I think one of the things that we've done to help condom users is make better condoms. They're thinner, they have better loob on them and that's helpful and I think that we should continue to make better masks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right, and more comfortable ones. I can remember in the beginning it was like, "Oh, my ears hurt all the time," but that kind of got worked out in design over time.
Martha Kempner: Yes, it's very helpful and I think that that's what we need to keep going on condom innovation, we need to keep going on mask innovation because the more we can get rid of the negative feelings around it the better.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, when you talk about negative feelings, sometimes kind of Goffman like here, there's a sense that public shaming can also be valuable for doing things like moving folks towards condom use even though it's private or towards mask use which is more public. Should we use public shaming and are there effective and-- oh, this sounds odd, but almost kind or appropriate ways to use public shaming versus just cruel ones?
Martha Kempner: My children will tell you I'm the judgest person in the world. Shaming doesn't work, it's my first instinct but we know from years of public health research that it doesn't work. I can envision a moment where I see someone in a store not wearing a mask and I try to appeal to their sense of decency and remind them that my 10-year-old still can't get vaccinated, it's not a choice and she's still vulnerable, so please put your mask on. I wish that would work, I'm not sure it really will.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It feels like there's one other important connection between COVID and the HIV/AIDS crisis and that was a sense that we felt differently about it and had different kinds of public health messaging when it felt like everybody was in it together and when it felt like it impacted just one group like men who have sex with men or mostly people who were using IV drugs or whatever this sort of single group was, it was easy to ignore it. I'm wondering if that's what's happening with COVID. This sense that, well, it’s not the problem of these people, it's just the problem of those people.
Martha Kempner: Definitely, I think we want to think our own risk is low and so what we do is we're like, "Well, I'm not old or I don't have a compromised immune system so I'm going to be fine. It's just them." Then when we say it's just them we give ourselves an excuse to not wear the condom or wear the face mask and in this case, especially condoms are a little different because they're just between two people. This is really a case of a community needing to protect everyone in it, and so othering and underestimating your own risk or putting the risk on other people is not helpful.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Martha Kempner is a sexual health expert and author of the weekly newsletter Sex on Wednesday. Thanks for joining us, Martha.
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