IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Called Out a Condom Company For Lying About Cancer And They Just Kept Lying

Plastic packets of death? I think not.
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JoEllen Notte
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Plastic packets of death? I think not.

Earlier this year, Sustain condoms came onto the scene and a lot of folks were excited. A father/daughter, vegan, fair-trade condom company that donates money to women’s health organizations? Sign me up! Then they funded a study and announced that its results (cancer-causing nitrosamines were found in many other condoms but not theirs!) meant that everyone else’s condoms would give you cancer.

Check out the video Sustain promoted as “incredible and important” entitled Are Condoms Killing You (no question mark because who has time for punctuation when you’re fear-mongering?). The scary assertions about nitrosamines and condoms had actually been addressed in a study years earlier and were refuted by none other than former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. 

In spite of this, the father/daughter duo behind Sustain proceed to publicly lead consumers to believe that there was imminent danger due to nitrosamines in condoms in statements like these:

“...removing this carcinogen from a product that goes inside women was critical.”

Meika Hollenderm, Sustainable Brands

Sustain Condoms Calling on Young Women to Treat Their Bodies Like Temples, October 28, 2014

I like this one because it really hits you over the head: “CANCER!!! INSIDE YOU!!!”

“Jeffrey Hollender says nitrosamines are found in rubber products, and many foods and tobacco. ‘They’re not an additive; they’re a chemical reaction, a byproduct. Nitrosamines are known to cause cervical cancer ...’

‘And penile cancer,’ his daughter chips in.”

Selling Sustainable Sex, Portland Tribune,  November 13 2014

No, they really, seriously aren’t.

“Also, something that most people don’t know, which I also didn’t know before starting Sustain is that 8 out of 10 condom brands sold in the US contain a carcinogen called Nitrosamine. Nitrosamine is something that actually also exists in other products but what we found a little scary about Nitrosamine in condoms is that it actually releases from the latex when it is exposed to heat and moisture. So, you can use your imagination about when it gets released. It actually goes into the woman’s body.”

Meika Hollender, Co-founder of Sustain, Consciousness, Carcinogens… and Condoms, Teens Turning Green Blog, November 18, 2014

Ah, yes, the time-honored scientific tradition of saying some scary words and then asking people “use your imagination,” in this case employed on a teenage audience to help them arrive at conclusions that are patently false. Good times.

In addition to statements like these, the internet is riddled with Sustain marketing materials marked by their use of the word “carcinogens,” their implications that other brands are just toxin bombs and, my personal favorite the implication that Sustain condoms are “saving your girlfriend’s uterus.”

So, let’s take stock for a minute: We live in a world where 30 years have been spent educating, convincing and frankly, pleading with people to use condoms and Sustain has announced a (not true) reason for people to avoid them. 

Abstinence-only “educators” are encouraged to tell students that condoms don’t work (result: kids who have been through abstinence-only education while not less likely to have sex are less likely to have protected sex) and Sustain has given these “educators” something (not true) to point to so they can say “condoms don’t work and will give you cancer of the junk.” 

HPV definitely causes cervical cancer and the spread of it will definitely increase if condom use is lessened- Sustain has created a (not true) link between cervical cancer and condom use, effectively prompting people who want to avoid cervical cancer to do something that will make developing it way more likely.

These are the real world implications of making condoms, except those made by one small brand, out to be the boogeyman. The cancer-laden boogeyman.

Condoms. Or, according to Sustain, foil packets of death.

Condoms. Or, according to Sustain, foil packets of death.

Folks finally got fed up. Led by Melissa White, a sexual health advocate and CEO of Lucky Bloke condoms (a company that provides sexual health education in addition to selling a wide variety of high quality condoms. They briefly carried Sustain prior to this debacle) folks started publicly speaking out. 

White put out a piece called Cigarettes Cause Cancer; Condoms Don’t that, in addition to mentioning the “Hey, stop saying condoms cause cancer” thing asked a lot of questions about the methodology behind the Sustain-funded study. 

Almost immediately a rebuttal piece appeared entitled RHTP Agrees Condoms Do Not Cause Cancer and Has Never Stated Otherwise. It is important to note that this rebuttal came from Reproductive Health Technologies Project, the group that conducted Sustain’s study, not Sustain and while the piece fails to address a lot of the shortcomings of the study, it does make one thing clear-- neither they, nor the study, have ever said that condoms can cause cancer. There was never data suggesting that.

Sustain was not basing their claims on anything that actually came out of the study. But, let’s not forget, the founders most definitely, made the claims. The marketing materials definitely read like fear-mongering propaganda. All that this piece shows us is that the study that they were citing, never said what they were saying it said. Which we already knew.

The next morning I posted my piece, Condoms, Cancer & Scare Tactics -- How One Company Is Using Fear to Sell and my readers, rowdy bunch they are, joined forces with the folks who were already riled up about Melissa’s piece, took to Twitter and things got really interesting.

Sustain, faced with consumers and members of the industry asking questions and demanding answers about claims they had made undeniably made, things they had indisputably said, stuff there is a whole lot of proof of, knew that there was no way to dodge the truth, owned up to everything and came to the table ready to have a fruitful dialogue about how to make things right, improve their business practices, win back the trust of consumers and move forward with honor.

JK! They didn’t do any of that! They instead spent the afternoon sending the same tweet over and over to anyone who questioned them on anything at all:

This went on for a really long time

This went on for a really long time

The link that they tweeted out over and over for days? That they then proceeded to seek out sex educators and industry voices to tweet it to unsolicited (I guess to protect their good name)? That link? It was the rebuttal article from Reproductive Health Technologies Project. The one that states that the study never said condoms cause cancer. The one that disputes things that the company’s founders have said and the company’s marketing materials have implied for months.

OK...

While it is great to clear up the whole “condoms cause cancer” thing, Sustain seems to think if they just ignore all the stuff they have already put out into the world stating otherwise, it will all go away. So, I asked about the discrepancies between the content of the article and the statements made by Jeffrey and Meika Hollander and was greeted by silence. 

It’s baffling really because, like I said at the beginning, people were excited for this company, people wanted to support this company and handling this situation correctly could have kept some of that support alive. Really, (not me, I’m still pretty pissed) for a lot of people it seems a simple retraction and apology would have done it:

Seriously, this guy is asking so little.

Seriously, this guy is asking so little.

But now they are the company that lied about cancer, then lied about lying about it and were kind of condescending douches about it. It’s not entirely surprising. This has all along seemed to me to be a case of arrogance run amok. 

Sustain thought they were smarter than consumers. They thought they would throw around a science-y sounding word (“oohhh nitrosamines!”) and say “cancer” and people would be too scared or stupid to question them. Then when people did question them they seemed to think that if they just ignored us we would go away. That we would get bored or distracted by the next shiny thing and stop having the audacity to question them.

I can’t wait to see how this story plays out. I would love to see this company right itself, but they seem hell-bent on sticking to their story of “we never said or did those things we said and did” and frankly, they have refused to interact with me at all (such is the life of a lowly sex blogger) so I have no idea what the official story is this week. 

I’ve noticed a lot more tweets stressing how much they care about AIDS and HIV and a lot of enthusiastic mentions of people who like them. As for those of us who want them to answer for the lies, the misinformation and the dangerous fear-mongering? I have a feeling we shouldn’t hold our breath.