It is common knowledge that advertisements related to sex sell. But who is going to sell safe sex and how? That remains a complicated and tricky question.

Unfortunately, contraceptive advertisements generate controversies and they are removed from the airwaves for one reason or another. Recently, an advertisement of flavoured condoms indirectly urged couples to have fruit-flavoured oral sex. The ad showed a woman biting into a strawberry and licking chocolate off her fingers. The Censor Board balked at the advertisement and registered a complaint with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).

"It's not just the looming threat of population explosion and AIDS. I want pleasure and protection while I enjoy an active sexual life. Most ads make fun of the act. They use cheap humour or are like soft porn films."

 •  Sex education still off the charts
 •  The condom, moon and the finger
 •  Gender norms worsen AIDS
 •  ABC's of fighting AIDS

The ASCI got the ad removed claiming that it was "vulgar". While many of those who were interviewed at the time agreed that condom advertisements needed to be aired on TV, there was no consensus on how the ad should feature the product and when it should be aired. Media reports quoted the condom manufacturer's clarification that flavoured condoms were not a promotion for oral sex; that they were being projected as an alternative choice for couples who dislike the smell of latex.

In the meantime, the world's second most populated country is on the verge of an AIDS epidemic. Can Indians afford to be coy about sex and contraception? In urban settings, people seem to know that condoms, if used properly, can deter the spread of HIV/AIDS and prevent pregnancy.

Yet, condoms are bought (if at all) with a blush that spreads across the shop. They are bought under cover of night, anonymity or, maybe, even disguise. "I can't go to the shop at the end of the road to buy a pack of condoms. I usually stop at places where I'll never go again. I also cannot stop to buy a pack with my partner. The maturity level and age of the shopkeeper often determines how easy or difficult buying condoms can be," says a citizen who does not want to be named.

Many young men and women who want to enjoy safe sex, are fumbling for reliable information on sex, contraceptive choices and methods. "It's not just the looming threat of population explosion and AIDS. I want pleasure and protection while I enjoy an active sexual life. Most ads make fun of the act. They use cheap humour or are like soft porn films," says L Nagaraj.

"I didn't go to a doctor before getting married to check out contraceptive options," says Preethi Raj, from Bangalore. "Through conversations with other women I get some information about these things. Now that I have a young child, I am anxious about conceiving but my friend says there's a new abortion pill available now."

Says B Anita, "I had to undergo an abortion when the condom failed. I was forced to have a Copper T inserted after that. I feel angry about having to bear the load of contraception all the time."

Traditionally, women are expected or forced to take responsibility for the consequences of sexual activities and, hence, seek contraception. Social, religious, political taboos often interfere with their right to reproductive choices and their access to information on contraception.

But this trend is reversing, according to sociologists and medical professionals. "Half my male patients are brought to me by their wives. Educated women come to me, even alone, to check on alternatives to the pill," says Dr Sudhakar Krishnamurti, Hyderabad-based eminent andrologist and author of 'Sex Is Not A Four-Letter Word'.

While there is a range of contraceptives tried out on women across the world, men popularly go by condoms, withdrawal and vasectomy, if they are motivated to use contraception. Condoms were invented only to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis.

Oral Contraceptive Pills (OCPs) for men are under various stages of research. Lack of volunteers to go on the pill often slows down research on the male pill. Many men 'willingly' put their wives through a tubectomy (female sterilisation) rather than subject themselves to a far simpler and safer process - the vasectomy (male sterilisation).

"I have written a whole chapter in my book on vasectomy and men's attitude to it," says Dr Krishnamurti. Sociologists and reproductive health experts believe that attitudes to male sexuality have to change before male contraceptive choices can be widened.

The condom is being held up as the only deterrent to HIV/AIDS. "A sexual revolution is sweeping the country. Sexual opportunity is available aplenty for both genders. But how can there be so much sex without protection?" asks Dr Krishnamurti. He says that people still view contraceptives as pregnancy prevention aids. The common person on the street is not worried about AIDS. "In many countries, there are huge hoardings at every traffic signal - 'Use condoms, prevent AIDS'. The condom is being held up as the only deterrent to HIV/AIDS. But in India, the ads are not very communicative."

"Every condom manufacturer promotes his product as best for pleasure enhancement. Nobody projects condoms as a medical product. This is not ethical," says Dr Krishnamurti.

Dr P Balamba, veteran obstetrician and gynaecologist from Osmania General Hospital, Hyderabad, says, "There is too much ignorance about sex and contraception among the youth - even among professionals - and the media may be fanning it." A contraceptive is not exactly a consumer product, she says. "People have to make an informed choice about contraceptives. Advertisements for condoms are very crude or very vague. They are lacking in content and information. Patients know little about them and are too embarrassed to ask."

This attitude to contraception can be disastrous in times when promiscuity has a stamp of approval. Even in professional circles, younger gynaecologists are hesitant to bring up the subject, unless asked.

Says Dr Balamba, "A local survey found that only 25 per cent of gynaecologists and 5 per cent of general practitioners had heard of emergency contraception. Advertisements are not effective. Ad makers should remember that different classes of people will watch/read the ad."

"Condom advertisements do influence my patients' choices. But many of these advertisements shy away from the point. They are just a form of indirect advertising," says Dr Rita Mhaskar, senior gynaecologist and obstetrician from Bangalore.

Advertisements are seen as an effective means of mass communication; but when it comes to condoms, they seem to be failing in their basic function. It becomes a dangerous failing in a situation where information marks the difference between safety and fatality. (Women's Feature Service)