The District of Columbia will soon become the first city in the United States to distribute free female condoms. By early April the city will begin distributing FC2 model female condoms in targeted areas of the District, including Wards 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7. The condoms will be made available at hair salons, convenience stores, and high schools through a $500,000 grant provided by the MAC AIDS Fund.[i]
According to the Washington Post, the female condom distribution campaign signifies the city’s “official acknowledgment” that relying on the distribution of male condoms has been ineffective in curbing the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. For nearly a decade, DC has distributed free male condoms citywide. District officials state that distributing female condoms will empower women to practice safe sex even if their partner refuses to use protection. A total of 500,000 female condoms will be distributed through the campaign.[ii]
The District of Columbia has an HIV/AIDS rate of three percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any rate above one percent is considered a “severe epidemic.”[iii] This rate amounts to approximately 15,100 adults in the District who are infected with HIV/AIDS. The District’s annual AIDS rate ranks second highest in the country out of the 11largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), metropolitan areas with population sizes greater than or equal to 500,000. The nation’s five MSAs with the highest AIDS rates include Miami, Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia respectively. Nationwide, HIV/AIDS infection is the leading cause of death among black women ages 25–34.
The targeted distribution areas for the city’s female condom campaign are based on survey data from the DC HIV Behavioral Study Series. The series focuses on the sexual behavior of the three populations identified by the CDC to be at highest risk for HIV infection, including heterosexuals living in areas with high AIDS prevalence and high poverty rates, men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users. The first part of the study series examined heterosexuals at high risk of infection. The DC Department of Health contracted with the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services to conduct the study, which surveyed heterosexual participants living in impoverished areas of the city. The study surveyed a sample population of 750 participants. The majority of participants were female (60.7 percent), black (92.3 percent), between the ages of 30 and 50 years-old (61.4 percent), and identified as heterosexual (89.5 percent). In addition, nearly half of participants reported being unemployed (43.7 percent) and almost two thirds of participants reported living in poverty (60.0 percent).[iv]
According to the findings, “some heterosexuals in committed relationships often have sex outside of the relationship, often do not know their partner’s HIV status, and often do not protect themselves by using condoms.”[v] Of the study participants, approximately 75 percent reported being in a committed relationship, although 46 percent of participants believed that their partner engaged in sex outside of the relationship and 45 percent reported engaging in sex outside of their relationship.[vi] Among study participants more than 70 percent reported not using condoms. Additional findings from the study reveal that women were significantly more likely than men to report having experienced depressive symptoms in the past week (48.9 percent of women versus 36.3 percent of men) and ever having experienced emotional or physical abuse (47.6 percent of women versus 25.7 percent of men). Research asserts that emotional and mental health problems place individuals at higher risk for engaging in unsafe behaviors and being more vulnerable to HIV transmission.[vii]
Domestic and sexual violence advocates believe that women living in poverty are less likely to demand that their male partners wear condoms because they are dependent on their financial support. City officials hope that distributing female condoms will allow women to take control of protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The female condoms being distributed are supplied by the Female Health Company based out of Chicago. The campaign will distribute the most recent version of the female condom, the FC2. The condom is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration and first hit markets in 2005. The FC2 is an upgraded version of the original female condom and is made of nitrile, a synthetic rubber polymer. The material, which is thinner than the polyurethane used to make the original version, “conducts body heat and enhances sexual sensation for men and women.” In addition, FC2 is significantly less expensive, retailing at $6.50 for a pack of three, compared to the original female condom which sold for approximately $17.00 for a pack of five.[viii]
[i] Darryl Fears, “DC to Be First U.S. City to Give Away Free Female Condoms to Fight HIV/AIDS,” Washington Post, 6 March 2010, accessed 15 March 2010, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/05/AR2010030504444.html?hpid=topnews>.
[iii] Heterosexual Relationships and HIV in Washington, DC, (Washington, DC: Government of the District of Columbia, Department of Health), accessed 15 March 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/resources/reports/2007report/pdf/2007SurveillanceReport.pdf>, 4.
[iv] In the study poverty was determined as having an annual household income of less than $10,000.
[v] Heterosexual Relationships and HIV in Washington, DC.
[vi] Ibid, p. 1. The study asked participants to define the type of relationship they held with their sexual partner. A relationship held with a “main partner” was characterized as one in which the participant felt committed to the partner above all others.
vii] Ibid., p. 13.
[viii] Fears, “DC to Be First U.S. City to Give Away Free Female Condoms.”