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So over on Tumblr (yes, that’s still a thing that’s happening), ozymandias271 explained what “condoms are 98% effective” actually means in a recent post and it’s kinda made my brain explode.

I’ve been hearing that statistic (or other similar ones) for ages, and never concerned myself with it too closely. Given how little casual (or any kind of) sex I’ve generally been having, it wasn’t of much personal importance, and while I advocate strongly for comprehensive sex and relationships education, it should definitely be someone better-informed than me doing it. But I knew enough to know that condoms are good, and knowing how they work is also good, and if I needed more detailed data than that I’d surely be able to do the research.

But 98% always seemed oddly low. I wasn’t sure how much it was affected by issues like compliance or user error – is that remaining 2% at least partly explained by people just applying them wrong? – but taken on its face that’s actually quite a high-sounding failure rate. Do you really only have to have fifty sexual encounters involving a condom before you’ve statistically had one for which it might as well not have been there and you’re facing all the risks of unprotected sex? Given how much sex straight people on TV seem to be having, this makes it sound like unplanned pregnancies due to contraceptive ineffectiveness would be cropping up pretty regularly, and just something to be accepted as par for the course.

Anyway it turns out that’s totally not what “98% effective” means. Taking the outcome of unplanned pregnancy specifically, here’s how one website describes the effectiveness of condoms:

In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy—two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate.

98% effective doesn’t mean a condom is only doing its job in 98% of sexual encounters. It means that 98% of people using condoms for a year will avoid unplanned pregnancies in that year.

Or, assuming you’re using them correctly and having sex about as often as these statisticians imagine, the length of time the average person would have to keep having regular safe sex before encountering a condom failure isn’t fifty sexual encounters, but fifty years.

I have been massively misunderstanding this for YEARS because of what seems like REALLY UNCLEAR COMMUNICATION AND UNHELPFULLY OBSCURE PHRASING, GUYS. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who finds that a totally counter-intuitive interpretation of the “98% effective” line. Did everybody but me already have this figured out? I mean, it’s less important that I understand this than almost anyone else, but still.

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I’ve not written about this at length before, but not kept my views exactly secret either. Basically, what Marsh said.

Having said that, I think much of the anti-circumcision camp can sometimes get bogged down with slightly weaker arguments that they really don’t need to worry about. In particular, when they counter claims about the perils of foreskin ownership with ways in which this particular area of skin can be beneficial.

It doesn’t need to be useful, or to actively promote good health, or to have anything particularly wonderful going for it. All you have to do is point out that the default course of action is not to cut bits off other people.

In religious arguments, the burden of proof with regard to God is on the person making the positive claims about him. And in arguments where one side is saying “I think surgically removing a bit of this newborn child is a good thing to do”, it’s very much up to them to justify that.

For instance, don’t respond to studies saying that sex is better without a foreskin, by pointing to other studies which indicate the opposite. Well, if you have good reason to think that your studies really are the only sound ones, I guess you could do that. But you should primarily be asking why such a ridiculous argument is being made for slicing a chunk off your baby’s genitalia in the first place.

The implication is that a significant number of uncircumcised men aren’t enjoying their sex life as much as they could be, and are seething with frustration at this damnable yoke of a foreskin they’ve been cursed to carry around with them. And that this is such a huge problem for these poor men, that it’s worth taking a knife to every new-born boy’s junk pre-emptively so that it can be avoided.

This is a serious mishandling of priorities. Most of these men’s sexual experiences would benefit far more from an open and honest conversation with their partner, a little creativity and research, and maybe a shopping spree at Lovehoney, than from having had their foreskin removed years ago. And in those cases where the foreskin really is the problem, there are various medical or surgical interventions which can be employed down the line, once there’s actually a problem that requires it, and once they’re in a position to understand and consent to the proposed fate of their dangliest of bits.

Other arguments intended to justify and support this mass emasculation, in brief:

Tradition

Fuck off.

Seriously. If the best you can say for it is “We’ve been doing it for years”, isn’t it maybe time you stopped and asked why you’ve been doing it for years?

Lots of things are traditional. Some are good, some are bad. If it’s a good idea, it should stand up on its own merits. The sole fact that it’s an idea with tenacity has no predictive power either way.

As it happens, if circumcision wasn’t already a long-standing cultural tradition, and was a new thing that people were just starting to do now, my guess is that most people would be appalled by it, and far less impressed by the usual justifications offered.

Aesthetics

Fuck RIGHT off, you insensitive, superficial, thoughtless lacerater of children.

Religion

To quote a wise and handsome man:

Saying “because it’s my religion”, as a legal justification for something, or in any similar circumstances, should carry exactly equivalent weight to saying “because I really, really want to”.

In other words, nobody’s obliged to care if you consider something a religious obligation if it’s a flat-out terrible thing to do.

You’re welcome to exercise your own freedoms to the full extent of your capabilities, up to the point where they adversely affect other people. They can be religious, or not. Doesn’t matter. Knock yourself out. But beyond that point, you don’t get to snip off the tip of someone’s dick for the same reasons you don’t get to poke out their eye or hack off their clitoris, regardless of what you think God wants.

It’s superfluous

There is plenty of my body that’s technically superfluous. I’m not convinced my middle toe on either foot has ever done anything for me. Its neighbours on either side have the balance thing taken care of. But they’re not exactly in the way, and I’m rather glad they were left there when they weren’t causing any trouble, and I was allowed to decide what to do with them myself.

Health benefits

Here the evidence is murky at best. But however much the data might inch things onto the pro-circ side here, it’s not enough to merit such an intrusive and widespread intervention as some people suggest.

At least, not in the developed world it’s not. In Africa, where a good deal of research has been done, it does seem that HIV infections are being prevented by circumcisions, and that there is a significant percentage reduction in other infections.

In Uganda, for instance, circumcision might be an understandable route to take, and is certainly some way removed from being a monstrous act of barbarism. But the developed world has certain advantages we take for granted which Ugandans don’t have, such as widely available contraception and sexual health information.

There might be worthwhile benefits to circumcising 1.2 million American babies a year, if it was a given that they would all be having unsafe hetero intercourse and not looking after their sexual health in any other ways. This might be a fine opportunity for another jab at abstinence-only education, but I’ll hold back on that for once. Americans aren’t like that.

The health benefits of cleaving millions of babies’ penises are easily surpassed by those of educating them in basic cleanliness and sexual health later in life. It’s just not necessary.

Seriously, there should be a much higher bar than many people seem willing to set, before we start cavalierly perforating our children’s manhoods. Think of it this way: What percentage reduction in HIV transmission, in penile-vaginal sex, would justify female circumcision? How much infection would it have to prevent before you supported cutting off every clitoris at birth as a preventative measure?

Which I suppose I should touch on at least briefly before closing. This process involving the excision of the clitoris in young girls, which is alarmingly prevalent in parts of Africa, is utterly terrible. It is more deserving of the name “genital mutilation” than male circumcision (though I’m not getting into that semantic argument here), and is certainly more likely to cause problems and be resented by the victims later in life than removal of the foreskin. On an individual level, it seems safe to say that girls have it worse.

But it’s not a competition, and it doesn’t just have to be considered on an individual level. What concerns people about male circumcision is how widespread it is in developed countries like the United States, where it goes on all the time as if it were perfectly okay.

They’re both serious issues worth addressing. But only one is the primary subject of this particular blog post, and only one is something that many of your neighbours and work colleagues might boast proudly about doing to their own children.

The title of this post might seem a bit laboured, but I’m sure the spoonerism is as dear as clay.

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We don’t really have a single organisation comparable to Planned Parenthood in the UK. Many of their services are available on the NHS, and there are various other private organisations doing similar things, but none with quite the same national scope and importance.

They’ve been central to a good deal of American politics lately, though, so it’s probably worth finding out some more details about them. And one good place to start is with debunking some myths.

I’ve never heard of any fundamentalist Christians opposing, say, pap smears. The Vatican still officially refuses to countenance condoms (although they may be sliding on that point, in their anti-progressive way), but it’s less of a hot-button topic. Even the people who take that one seriously are more likely to maintain it as a personal decision, without expecting laws to be passed to enforce their own preference.

The only real controversy is around abortion. This is the one that makes people angry, to the point of violence, murder – and, in the case of some politicians, lying their tits off.

A couple of weeks ago, Republican Senator Jon Kyl bullshitted that “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does” is abortions. According to people who know what the fuck they’re talking about, it’s actually around 3%.

A spokesman later clarified that the 90% remark was “not intended to be a factual statement“. So, politicians are now confessedly under the impression that lying deliberately is okay if you have some rhetorical point to make.

I’m losing track of whether my main argument here was meant to be pro-choice or anti-state.

The thing is, even though the various other reproductive services offered by organisations like Planned Parenthood aren’t subject to as much vocal opposition, it’s far from clear whether many anti-abortionists are in favour of them.

The advice and preventative care offered by Planned Parenthood has led to hundreds of thousands of cases where the abortion question becomes moot, because no child was conceived to parents who weren’t ready or prepared to bring a new life into the world. Endorsing and funding and encouraging the services which actually make up 90% of Planned Parenthood’s work – such as preventing unwanted pregnancies occurring in the first place, and testing for and treating things like STDs and cancer – would be of huge benefit to the conservatives’ purported goals.

Any competent sexual health advice will include the fact that the only way to be sure of avoiding pregnancy and disease is abstinence. There’s so much that Planned Parenthood do which should be right up anti-abortionists’ street. I mean, who’s against curing cancer?

But all that just tends to get ignored, and the anti-abortion ideology insists on inflating the problem and cracking down on it in the only, blinkered way they know. It’s like the war on drugs all over again.

Tip o’ the hat to Bay of Fundie.

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There was a show on Channel 4 on Tuesday called The Sex Education Show, the first in a series in which journalist Anna Richardson “takes on the nation’s sexual coyness”. I’ve done the whole sex education rant thing before, so I won’t get too much into that again, but there were a couple of things I wanted to mention about the show.

For a start, her presenting style is bothersome, though I’m sure a lot of it’s the director’s fault. She starts off bouncing on a big bed in the middle of some plaza in London, then charging at hapless innocents and bellowing “Come on, let’s talk about sex!!” She finds she has little success in engaging anyone in a meaningful dialogue, which is astonishing given how approachable she seems, and the way she delicately puts everyone at their ease.

She concludes that it’s because we’re British and crap at communicating, which I’m fairly sure is true, but it doesn’t help if the way you’re going to broach such a personal topic is to run up to someone trying to get home with their shopping, shove a microphone in their face, and demand to know how big their cock is. That poor woman got quite upset. (Okay, I jest frivolously, but the way she was doing things wasn’t really much more amenable to an actual discussion than this.)

The other main problem with the format of the show is that, despite the name, it doesn’t seem to make any kind of distinction between sex education, sex therapy, sexual health, sexual trivia, or whatever. They can’t seem to make up their mind who they’re trying to inform about what, and the resulting smorgasbord of isolated explorations of varied sexual themes feels less useful as a result.

I’ll explain what I mean. They started with the fact that some people claim to have vastly improved their sex lives by getting rid of their pubic hair, though she describes it as “down below, and I’m not just talking about your legs”. Now, the whole point of this show is supposed to be about getting over our prudishness and unwillingness to communicate, but if you’re going to use childish euphemisms to avoid saying words like “pubic” and “vagina”, as our intrepid presenter regularly did, doesn’t that rather undermine your claim to maturity and open communication? It wasn’t too terrible, probably just her personal learned habits of speech showing through, but it grated.

She decided to “put this claim to the test” by getting a bikini wax. And we got rather a lot more footage of this than can possibly have been necessary, with several cameras in the room with her, stopping just shy of pointing right into her splayed crotch. I admire her devotion, but we spent a lot of time on this one thing, and a sample size of one isn’t going to prove anything. Wouldn’t some results of a survey be more useful, rather than just the vague notion that lots of women say it helps?

Anyway, she concludes that it’s great, and I do admit that there’s some benefit in investigating this, but we then move on into a whole different area of importance and start talking about condoms. 25% of males surveyed apparently don’t know that condoms come in different sizes. 35% of condom users have experienced “splitting or slipping”. Only 60% of men always make sure they use a condom (though I’m not sure what sort of sexual encounters this was referring to). This is relevant to a whole different realm than the pubic hair issue. That was about livening things up, enjoying things more, adding “spice”. How to use contraceptives is basic education on how to be safe in the first place. I’m not saying the fine details aren’t important, but role-playing and sexy underwear surely come several stages after knowing how not to get chlamydia.

But they never really made the distinction, and the scattergun pick-and-mix approach continued for the rest of the hour. We next learned that 58% of 14-17 year-old boys surveyed have seen porn, and 5% do so daily, mostly on the internet. They talked to a few of them, who were also familiar with 2girls1cup. (Don’t click that link. I’m warning you. And if you don’t already know, for the love of Xenu don’t google it. You’re better off not knowing.) And yeah, that’s pretty disturbing, but next they dedicate several minutes to traumatising a few more innocents, as a bunch of parents are subjected to watching the actual horrific video clip, and being told that this is the sort of thing their kids are looking at online. Does this really teach us anything? We got a quite sufficiently graphic description of what those women are doing in it, but it’s hardly representative of what’s out there and what’s turning people on these days.

And then we bounce straight over to lingerie, and a discussion on how many people use this to feel sexier and enjoy sexy times more. And then moments later we’re back to body image, and a demonstration of how far people’s perspectives are skewed when it comes to estimating a “normal” size for penises and breasts. The non-surgically-enhanced tits are criticised harshly by boys and girls alike, even the quite nice ones. (Nice tits, I mean, not nice boys and girls.) This is porn’s fault. Again, there’s really no coherence from one item to the next.

It’s all quite frivolous and flippant, too. At one point we get an actual doctor in, wearing a lab-coat and everything, telling us actual useful stuff, talking frankly, not trying to be fun, even using naughty words to refer to willies and vajayjays. But it’s in a section on its own that feels cordoned off from the rest of the show, carefully segregated away from the wacky jokey fun on either side, which they seem relieved to be able to get back to once the doctor’s done with the serious stuff.

It’s a six-part weekly series; I won’t be reporting in this much detail each week unless something particularly intrigues or annoys me, but so far, I’m not impressed with the way they’re failing to use a potentially great opportunity.

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