Condom of all trades

To put things in perspective, only about one-third of the condoms that are handed out every year witness the darkness of a bedroom.

Interestingly, the contraceptive method also finds lucrative use outside the bedroom. Think saree weaving, winemaking, road making, science experiments, archaeology, and the likes. But how, where and, umm, why? Read on to find out.

Think of a condom and the first thing that pops up in your head is sex. But is that the only purpose that the product serves? Commercials and sex education have taught us that a condom protects us from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and infections. However, surprisingly, the hush-hush contraceptive device has a lot more to it — for a variety of professions. After all, it is cheap, hygienic, and of high quality, with the potential to build, sustain and conserve.

To put things in perspective, only about one-third of the condoms that are handed out every year witness the darkness of a bedroom. One wonders, all of these cannot possibly go to waste, so where do they end up? Well, in a lot of places — be it a construction site, a sari weaver’s workshop, or a road amid construction.

Confused? Well, imagine this: this is a product made of latex, a form of rubber that finds use in all the abovementioned places, and many others. Consider the saree weavers of Varanasi. The ancient art has been under threat because of an influx of machine-made sarees from China. So, artisans have been losing business and opting for cost-cutting measures, some of which are quite innovative.

For starters, they rub unused condoms on the loom shuttles. Courtesy the lubrication, this technique cheaply keeps the machines’ operation fluid. Using condoms also saves weavers about four hours per saree. In the finished product, the contraceptive is used to give gold and silver threads a glow.

Then, take the example of road-making. Very recently, it was reported that Kakkode Road in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, was found scattered with innumerable condoms. Turns out, when it was constructed, a contraceptive company had provided the soil to level the road, and also used this as an opportunity to deposit their waste. And this isn’t a one-off case: As per a report by King George’s Medical University in Lucknow, contractors often mix condoms with concrete and tar to construct roads that are smooth and resistant to cracks. This comes as an ingenious solution in a country like ours, which is notorious for its heavy monsoon rains and roads that need constant repair.

If we take a look at the article, ‘The many uses of condoms in Cuba’, published in The Economist, we realise that condoms are sometimes used as a cheap alternative. Many important goods are in short supply in Cuba, so the contraceptive’s uses range from the ridiculous to the inventive. Like, for instance, some winemakers who use glass bottles to ferment wine, close them off with a condom, which remains inflated until carbon dioxide stops being produced (thus, ending the fermentation).

And, the closer you get to science, the more non-sexual uses you discover. A University of Massachusetts Amherst report lists out instructions for the ways in which archaeologists can use the contraceptive. The outside of the tool should be covered with a condom to prevent cross-contamination from borehole fields’ — is just one such entry.

From a more Indian context, Dr Garima Goel, a senior gynaecologist, reveals how condoms are used in her profession. On being asked whether she finds its such alternative usages ‘odd’ or ‘funny’, she comments, “No, we don’t find it funny. In fact, we also have many other non-sexual uses of condoms in medical science. We use the product ourselves while doing transvaginal ultrasounds, or for stopping of post-delivery heavy bleeding.”

Don’t flush it!
Although now we know that the use of condoms transcends sex, its proper disposal remains a concern (and flushing it down the toilet, dear friends, mostly leads to a clogged drain). One wonders what are the ways in which discarded condoms can be reused and recycled.

When asked about the same, NGO worker Pallabi states, “A lot of research has gone into developing the technology that can help recycle condoms. But, until some effective method comes into play, we should start worrying about the ones that have already been produced, sold and, maybe, used. Most condoms are non-biodegradable. Though some claim otherwise, we are sure that their compost won’t bring a happy smile on our faces.” She suggests that there should be government policies, like in the case of plastics, where these condoms can be better dealt with.

Environmentalist Minakshi Pandey adds to this by saying, “We don’t have a proper system (waste disposal) in our country, and just like any other manmade waste, condoms present a danger. This has happened become of lack of education and awareness in our country.”

She adds, “In cities, people are on their phones and there is Google, so you can always find out. But in rural India, we don’t have smartphones — hence it is very difficult to educate people on these matters.”

Another environmentalist, C.R.E Subbarao, raises a pertinent point — “No material inventories are carried out in municipal waste. We are a long way from ensuring good management practices there.” Indeed, the first step to proper disposal is the segregation of waste.

Luckily, plenty of condom disposal bags are now available. These are easy to use, biodegradable, and even help conceal the odour.

Condom 101
Just as we have progressed as a society, the evolution of the condom has been a long-drawn process. From the ancient days of using sterilised animal intestines or turtle shells, right up till the modern era of hygienic forms of rubber and, now, latex — its history has been an adventure in itself. But let’s keep that for another day. Instead, some details on the materials and the types of condoms that are available today would help you better understand how they lend a helping hand.

There are four categories of male condoms. Most are of latex, but there’s non-latex for anyone with an allergy, and those are usually made of polyurethane. Another kind would be the ones that are made of polyisoprene. If you are unlucky enough to be allergic to both, there is an unusual option of lambskin condoms, which are made from lamb intestines. Then there are female condoms, which function in a completely different manner and, yet, protect against pregnancy and STIs.

Protect yourself from stigma
We had to understand the important-yet-neglected uses of condoms in non-sexual activities.

For that, we tried speaking to people from different walks of life. We also attempted to contact organisations, but many refused to voice their opinion. Their refusals do seem to indicate that Indian society is miles away from foregoing the taboo associated with condoms.

Civil engineer Sukamal Karmakar comments, “Let alone family members, experts and professionals who know about the material and its uses, will think twice before using such products for commercial purposes.”

“Education leads to social acceptance. And, by education, I mean open discussions without the veil of hesitation. The way commercials and sex education have shaped people’s perception about condoms — the same can apply if these discussions are placed in the light of non-sex usage of condoms,” says Kathika (name changed), a corporate worker.

Some people believe that condoms cause illness, disease, even cancer. Whereas, as per the International Planned Parenthood Federation, there have been no registered cases of serious long- or short-term side effects due to the usage of condoms. In fact, their use allows protection against health conditions caused by sexually transmitted infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer, and infertility.

Shaira Kohli, a psychologist, expresses, “Most men and women still find it embarrassing to go and buy condoms. The issue is not the contraceptive. The issue is how Indians view sex. The skewed dynamics of power between men and women in the country also contributes to this as men often dictate what contraceptives to use, especially in rural areas. As men believe condoms reduce sexual pleasure, many women resort to oral contraceptives.”

On a similar note, marketing professional Rittam Majumder adds, “We try and resist anything that makes us uncomfortable. Just imagine your elder sister handing you a condom. But, if we become free and frank, and people start taking everything in a normal way, maybe in the near future even sex won’t be a taboo, and sexual crime rates will drastically decrease.”

Dr Goel reveals how hygienic condoms are by saying, “For starters, they come in pre-sterilised packets. Condom manufacturers follow certain medical standards. Otherwise, they won’t even get a manufacturing license. And the ones handed over by government institutions like hospitals follow government hygiene standards and distribute free samples.”

Ilina Bhattacharya, a Ph.D. research scholar, adds, “We need to understand that using any product for science and research will eventually lead to some discovery and help in the progress of society. If prevented from using it, the scientific community might come up with a similar product that will add to waste generation. So, using any such product for research purposes might be a viable option.” The genetics researcher is ready to say yes to the product for non-sexual uses, as long as it does not increase non-biodegradable waste pollution.

Finally, if you want to use a condom for non-sexual purposes, go with a non-lubricated one, or else you may have to spend the rest of the day with greasy hands. When it comes to hygiene and research, it’s better to use the non-fragranced alternatives as the fragranced ones can compromise a science sample.

On a finishing note
While we are discussing the viability of using condoms for many purposes in 2019, five years ago, a Brazil-based artist and social activists, Adriana Bertini, started making dresses out of unused or defective condoms. These are “quality-test rejected’, and Bertini’s message has been “Condoms must be basic like a pair of jeans and so necessary like a great love.” Her designs, if you take one look at her Instagram profile, are incredibly beautiful — be it the pitch-black hat and bow ensemble, a certain elegant black dress, or a beautiful red gown that, if you subtract the taboo, anyone will wear.

But coming back to the message, it is true that if the object is looked at without factoring in the stigma, it is just a harmless piece of rubber. And its alternative usages, especially by professions who have valued practicality over age-old norms and conventions, do add to the social acceptance. The stigma is yet to fade away, and by no means will it happen in the immediate future. But, the next time a person sees a condom in a store, we hope they can go up to the counter and ask for it in a clear, crisp, unperturbed tone.

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