Sex Questions from the Twittersphere: Why is Spermicide illegal in SF?
[We barely missed this question posted on Twitter yesterday while “Tweeting with the Queen”. Carol was gracious to answer it anyway, what a gal! – ed.]
Question: Why is spermicidal lubricant illegal in San Francisco?
I don’t think spermicidal lube is illegal, per se, in San Francisco, but it is no longer being recommended or distributed by any of the organizations with a stake in safer sex education or AIDS prevention; in fact, it’s usually actively recommended against. Here’s why:
In the 1980s researchers discovered that spermicides like nonoxynol-9, the most commonly used one, killed HIV and other viruses in vitro — that is, in the lab, in a test tube. Everyone rushed to recommend it as a means of protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted bugs, and many lube companies put out a version with n-9. But “in vitro” and “in vivo” — in real life — sometimes yield different research results, and in the early/mid-1990s research began to emerge from in vivo trials in Africa that not only did spermicidal lubricant not prevent HIV in the populations being studied, but in fact seemed to make it more likely that an uninfected person would become infected. The first study I heard about was conducted among prostitutes, and they were being given only germicides to use, not condoms as well — it’s thought that the higher infection rate in this case was due to the fact that n-9 is a harsh material (it is, in fact, a detergent), and that it abraded the vaginal mucosa of these women enough that other bugs like HIV found it easier to take hold. Once this information circulated within the public health world and among other HIV activists and educators, use of the spermicide became not a recommended panacea but a cause for concern. (Plenty of outrage was also expressed against using humans as guinea pigs in this way.)
Good Vibrations was actually a leader in removing nonoxynol-9 lubes from circulation, because I attended an international AIDS conference in Amsterdam the year the African study was released, heard about it, and brought the news home. Some women still use spermicides with condoms or diaphragms for pregnancy prevention, but even this must be considered carefully — if she’s sensitive to the substance and at all at risk for sexually transmitted conditions (and if she’s sexually active, it’s always possible that she might be), a woman should probably avoid this combo. (This may be even more important for people using germicidal lubes for anal sex, since the rectal mucosa is even more delicate, and probably more easily irritated, than vaginal.)
Condoms, used carefully, are close to as effective with non-spermicidal lube as with nonoxynol-9. The main point of the lube is to serve as a back-up if the condom breaks, and if it doesn’t, it’s a best-case scenario.
So a condom care refresher: don’t use expired ones; don’t carry them in a purse, pack, or other place their wrappers might be pierced or torn; don’t store them in a hot place (like your car’s glove compartment, or in your wallet); be careful taking them out of the wrapper especially if you have jewelry, long nails, or snags on your cuticles that might break the condom as you handle it; and never use an oil-based lube with a latex condom.