UNPOPULAR OPINION: I'm Not Excited About STI-Detecting Color-Changing Condoms

People are hyped. I don’t blame them — I, too, may have been excited a few years ago. That was before I contracted genital herpes.
Publish date:
July 1, 2015
unpopular opinion, condoms, STIs, Sexually Transmited Infections, sex

Last week the media blew up with news of a safe sex plan aimed at curbing sexually transmitted infections: condoms that react to viruses and bacteria by changing color. When the story first popped up on my Facebook and Tumblr feeds, I thought to myself: “This seems too convenient to be true.” Guess what — it is.

According to headlines like “3 Schoolboys invent STI detecting condom” (NYTimes) and “S.T.EYE Condoms Glow In The Dark When An STI Is Detected” (Bustle), you’d think the product existed. As it turns out, the color-changing condom is entirely in its concept phase. CNN reported that while the design might be possible with current molecular technology, actually constructing the S.T. EYE would be difficult and very expensive.

Yet, even the idea of a silver bullet against STIs is enough for the average click-happy internet user. People are hyped. I don’t blame them — I, too, may have been excited a few years ago. That was before I contracted genital herpes.

Herpes turns the condom yellow, by the way.

I was diagnosed with herpes simplex virus in my last week of college. The week when everyone else was getting as drunk as possible and trying to check off all the cuties from their “to do” lists. Meanwhile, I was under the influence of Valtrex and Codeine prescriptions, leaving my bedroom only to pee, attend commencement, and make a brief appearance at the parents' party my roommates and I had organized at our apartment. I politely didn’t tell any parents why I wasn’t feeling up to schmoozing. Honestly, it was a rough week.

But that week ended. The sores on my crotch healed and never came back. I found out that at least one in six Americans have genital herpes like me and a whopping eighty percent carry it orally. For some perspective, that means the vast majority of people you know have the potential to give someone genital herpes. With stats like these, why shouldn’t I feel normal?

Enter: STIGMA. It’s hands down the biggest drag of having herpes — says not just me, but nearly everyone else I’ve ever talked to with the same condition. It’s what makes herpes into joke material. It’s why some people are more afraid to sleep with a person who discloses they are herpes-positive than they are to ride in a car, even though the latter poses a risk of getting into an accident that is significantly greater than the risk of becoming infected.

Stigma is why the Washington Post opened their S.T. EYE coverage with this quote from MTV News: “This is one #aftersex glow that you probably don’t want.” Bam. First line. Nobody wants to end up like you, in case you forgot.

It’s why we got this gem of a headline: “Roses are red, condoms are blue…if you have syphilis.” Never mind the plethora of blue condoms on the market, including blue raspberry flavored, which must be someone’s favorite. What matters is that syphilis is manageable — we’ve had penicillin to treat it since the 1940s.

Of course, medicine is not a replacement for practices like regular STI testing or mutually agreeable barrier and birth control use. But shit happens. Sometimes you get syphilis. Sometimes you get syphilis even when you were doing everything right. And it’s doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

If we’re really concerned about reducing STI transmission, fear-mongering is not the answer. Painting people with STIs as dirty, unloveable public safety hazards makes getting tested scary, because what if you find out you’re one of them? It makes for uncomfortable conversations about status with prospective partners. Seriously, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say they’re reluctant to ask “when’s the last time you got tested?” because it already implies suspicion and distrust.

We’re a society of people scared to talk about STIs. We like theoretical sex, movie sex, eye sex in a chewing gum commercial. Yet when it comes to the real deal, we’re a little bit wimpy and a little bit lost. The media’s reporting on color-changing condoms illustrates the relentless presence of STI stigma. Until we can have informed, respectful dialogue about the S.T. EYE, I doubt our ability to be informed, respectful consumers of the S.T. EYE.

Really, though — what do you do when the rubber glows at T minus 14 seconds to penetration? Do you bolt, leaving the other person surprised, confused, embarrassed? Do you go for it anyway, because at this point, blue condom is better than blue balls?

Ideally, an STI-detecting condom prompts a conversation — red, purple, or no color. But these conversations should be happening anyway! Communication is my number one safe sex practice as a person with herpes. In fact, it’s integral to the way I have sex. By disclosing my status before getting involved with someone new, I establish a precedent of openness and care right off the bat. When I give them space to freely determine what risks they’re exposed to, an active process of consent sets in motion. All these things make my physical interactions with a partner more intimate, connected, and enjoyable. I’ll take awesome sex with herpes over not-so-awesome sex without it any day.

There are technical problems with the S.T. EYE design. Current STI detection technology would take so long to produce a result that you wouldn’t know until after the deed was done. Whoops. At that point, how could we differentiate where the STI is — was that me, or was that you? It’s also unclear what happens in the case of multiple infections. Would my yellow-ness blend with someone else’s syphilis (blue) to produce green, a.k.a chlamydia?

But this is all assuming someone uses an S.T. EYE. A lot of people won’t — for the same reasons that, in the U.S., only 25% of vaginal sex involves condoms (33% among people who are single) and less than half of adults under the age of 45 have ever been tested for STIs besides HIV. If we’re so fixated on a particular outcome — not being that person, the one who made the condom turn blue — rather than the process of cultivating safety in our sex lives, we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot. Treating these condoms as “DO NOT FUCK” radars perpetuates the very stigma that discourages their use.

That’s what we’ve missed amidst the smart condom buzz: status awareness isn’t as simple as knowing who not to have sex with. It’s about having the information we need to make the right decisions for ourselves.

People have chosen to be with me, herpes and all, first and foremost because they dig who I am — and because they’ve felt they can trust me. It’s a deeper kind of safety. While an unexpectedly yellow condom might’ve freaked someone out, an honest, two-way conversation about our bodies and our boundaries never has.