O'Malley: State's sex humor cringe-inducing but might work

I will now write about the state's condom distribution program like a grown-up, without veering into questionable puns or juvenile humor. This is not because I have great impulse control. It is because the state has generated all the teenage condom humor I can handle today.

(Before I go on, a warning: If discussion of sex by a newspaper columnist makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now and look at some kittens.)

Condom distribution is part of a new public-health campaign entitled "Wrap it up, Alaska." The state's condoms come tucked in red matchbooks. Each matchbook is decorated with an Alaskan image and an edgy sex-related slogan. Picture a hockey goalie above the words, "Nice Save," a pair of rain boots with "Keep Your Rubbers Handy," or small plane above the words "Happy Landing." Those are the cleaner slogans. Some of the others are too explicit and/or cringe-worthy for a family newspaper. (The pictures that accompany those include an oil well, a basketball player with his ball, a snowmachiner without a helmet and a person riding a grizzly. You can use your imagination.)

What does sexual humor have to do with public health? It begins, I was told by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services this week, with chlamydia.

Chlamydia is a sexually-transmitted bacterial infection that has mild symptoms or none at all. Left untreated it can have major consequences, especially for women. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed STDs. More than two million people are diagnosed every year. It can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and that causes infertility. It also increases the chances of getting HIV.

Chlamydia often goes undetected because there are no symptoms. If you get tested and you have it, you can take care of it with a simple dose of antibiotics. If you don't get tested and you have it, which epidemiologists suspect is the case for good number of people, you can end up unable to have children.

Alaska has a huge chlamydia problem. Every year for the last decade, Alaska has had the highest or second-highest rates of chlamydia in the nation. Rates are particularly high among people in their late teens and 20s and Alaska Natives. (The state has also had a notable uptick in gonorrhea and syphilis.)


Back to condoms. Latex condoms are a simple way to prevent the spread of chlamydia. Chlamydia has become such a public health concern, sexual health advocates were able to sell the legislature on funding to reduce Alaska's rate, said Susan Jones, HIV and STD program manager for the state. It was the first time in memory that the state has give money to an STD prevention program targeted at a specific, high-risk group. Legislators gave health officials about $360,000 over three years, she said.

They used the money to beef up resources for testing and treatment, Jones said, and to develop the "Wrap it up" campaign meant to appeal to older teens and 20-somethings. That's where the risque condom matchbooks came from. There is also a series of sassy posters, including one that features a condom with the words "Engagement Ring" printed beneath it.

Planned Parenthood, the state, Alaska Native health organizations and the municipality of Anchorage have all had input on how the state funding was spent, but the actual ads were developed by the Department of Health and Social Services STD/HIV program, the HSS public information team and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium HIV/STD prevention program.

They admit some of the slogans push the boundaries of taste. But, they played well in focus groups made up of people in the target population. The idea was to make people laugh (because it's hard to talk about sex) and to get their attention.

"You got to cut through the clutter," said Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the state department of health and social services.

The state spent $4,800 for its first batch of 11,000 condoms. They were distributed at public health clinics, some events, and through a sexual health website, iknowmine.org, run by ANTHC, that targets young adults. The department then spent about $20,000 between April and June, advertising for iknowmine.org on Facebook, targeting young adult users. (It has other ads, pushing the message of abstinence and delaying sex, targeted at younger users.) It spent another $10,000 promoting iknowmine.org on Pandora internet radio. Together Pandora and Facebook ads brought just over 21,000 views to iknowmine.org.

Orders for STD testing kits tripled. Orders for 20-packs of mail-order condoms went from about five a month to five a day.

"The condoms are going like wildfire, they are being ordered right and left," Jones said. "People want to them because they are so cool."

Connie Jessen, program manager for HIV/STD prevention program at ANTHC, helps run iknowmine.org. She said that interviews with rural youth indicated that in some villages, the only place to access condoms was the village clinic. Some didn't want to get condoms there, and for that reason, did not use condoms. Offering free condoms by mail is a great alternative for that group, she said. About half of the nearly 3,000 condoms they sent went to places outside of Anchorage and the Mat-Su, she said.

I asked everyone whether giving away condoms meant people would actually use them. Can you change behavior with a funny sexual freebie?

"If they are being used, great. If they are being used as a conversation starter, that's great, too," Wilkinson said.

Some studies have shown that free condoms do correlate with more use and less disease transmission. Time will tell if it the state's small campaign will make a change. The state plans to research it, Wilkinson said. Meanwhile, the first batch state-issued joke condoms has disappeared. Another batch is on order.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


Wrap It Up Alaska



Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.