Yesterday I made a last-minute run to Target to get a few things I still needed to pack for my trip. As I was approaching the checkout counter I remembered what Ayu, the staff member at YKP who will be overseeing my research, had suggested to me in an email: she recommended that instead of bringing a small souvenir of chocolates that I instead bring an assortment of condoms for the clients (HIV- positive women, some of whom engage in sex work). She explained that “the girls love getting one or two foreign condoms in fun colors” and that the gesture would be more appreciated than a generic box of candy.
So, I swung back around to the pharmaceutical section and grabbed 2 boxes of assorted condoms- one Durex, the other Trojan.
I walked up to the express checkout, not realizing that my purchases would be construed as anything out of the ordinary. The cashier did not agree. As he processed my order, eyebrows were raised, and an audible sigh escaped from his mouth. He would not look me straight in the eye, even when I said “thank you.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t judging my toothpaste brand selection, rather, he was taken aback that I was purchasing 36 assorted “fun” condoms.
Perhaps I went into this situation with the wrong attitude. I assumed that, being a twenty-one year old woman in a relatively liberal area of New Jersey, I could procure contraceptives without being second- guessed. I found the whole incident perplexing, and went home and talked to my mom and grandma about it. As soon as I told them what I had bought they burst into laughter. My grandma explained that “back in my day, a woman NEVER bought contraception! And it was always behind the counter, you had to ask for it!” Both she and my mom continued to chuckle about my interaction, noting that it was demonstrative both of how progressive our community is, as well as how it highlighted lingering prejudices and gender inequalities.
Condoms are tricky: they are an effective contraceptive and can protect against STIs.They also serve as a proverbial scarlet letter. Purchasing or owning condoms is a very clear marker of sexual activity. And, as my experience at Target demonstrates, even if the objective is to promote safer sex, the reminder can still provoke feelings of discomfort.
For now, I can only wonder what condom use and distribution is like in Indonesia. However, knowing what I do about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Bali, especially as a result of sex tourism, I cannot imagine the topic being any less taboo. I don’t really have a concluding thought, other than I’m glad I was able to purchase them for YKP, and I look forward to learning about the women’s experiences with contraception.