It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... Condom Man?
Memphis' newest superhero, the mascot of the FreeCondomsMemphis.org campaign, is a cape-wearing, condom-wielding force for safe sex. Think Trojan Man, the iconic lovelife savior of the Trojan brand condom commercials. Except Condom Man isn't pushing any one brand of condoms so much as the use of condoms in general. To that end, he's handing out free prophylactics in all brands, colors, and, ahem, sizes.
FreeCondomsMemphis.org is an HIV-prevention program funded through the Department of Health and Shelby County Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, a federally funded program that provides medical and supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Log onto FreeCondomsMemphis.org, and you'll find a list of sites where condoms are available for free, along with specific information about how to get the condoms once you arrive at the location. "To get condoms, buzz into the door on the left side of the building and ask for Pastor," reads one location's entry. "Condoms are in a bowl by the register," reads another.
The participating sites, which have almost tripled in number since the program was launched on Valentine's Day, represent a wide range of businesses and organizations, from barber shops to churches, all with close ties to their communities.
"We were only funded to do 15 locations initially," says Elokin Capece, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis. "Now we have 40. I probably get a new one every day. It's snowballing. In the core areas of Midtown and downtown we're having to turn locations away, because we have too many."
Community stakeholders have proven crucial to the success of the program, as local business participation far surpasses that of regional or national businesses. Capece says almost every corporate business they approached to participate has said no, while the locally owned businesses have overwhelmingly said yes and have even begun applying to participate without solicitation.
"It's Memphis trying to reaffirm its support and acknowledge that there's an issue," says Zach Pepper, the burly, bearded fellow behind Condom Man. "We had a couple of the big businesses that wanted to do it, and even went to their bosses, but they've got policies that stand in the way."
If Memphis is acknowledging sexual health is an issue, the epiphany hasn't come a moment too soon. In 2008, Centers for Disease Control data ranked Memphis number one among 50 major U.S. cities for instances of sexually transmitted diseases including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. In 2010, there were 6,633 Memphians living with HIV/AIDS and, according to Dorcas Young, administrator of the Shelby County Ryan White Program, another estimated 2,000 HIV-positive patients who weren't aware of their status. Young also reports that 81 cases, or about 29 percent, of the 325 new cases of HIV in 2010 were patients between the ages of 15 and 24.
"The bottom line is it's important for people to have access to information and access to condoms," Young said. "For me it's a no-brainer. Folks just need what they need. And this program has been really visible, and it's helped the conversation here."