Crowdsourcing Condoms: Where They Are and Are Not


Wendy Norris is a Denver-based editor and investigative reporter working on assignment for RH Reality Check.

The locked, clear plastic case bolted onto the grocery store shelf resembles a little condom jail. They can’t get out and you can’t get in unless somebody with a uniform and a big set of keys unlocks the door to freedom.

It’s well known that condoms are an inexpensive and effective method for preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. But first you have to get them. Finding them in the store can require iron-willed determination and the tracking skills of a bloodhound.

Anecdotal reports began trickling in more than a year ago to members of the Prevention First Colorado Coalition that condoms were either being locked up on store shelves or stocked behind pharmacy counters. But no one from the coalition of reproductive health organizations and women’s community groups knew for sure whether access was truly restricted statewide.

"Our primary concern is ensuring that all Coloradans regardless of where they live or their income have access to the family planning tools and services that they need," said Toni Panetta speaking on behalf of the coalition. "We also recognize from a public health perspective that there are issues related to condom availability to help prevent the spread of STIs, HIV or AIDS."

So with a little help from 17 men and women I connected with via Twitter, Facebook and email, we scattered across the state in search of condom displays in grocery and drug stores. Our sleuthing took us to 64 chain retailers, convenience stores and organic markets in urban neighborhoods, suburban strip malls and rural towns in all four corners of the state.

Too embarrassed to trudge to the store and buy a box? One of our intrepid researchers found ample condom supplies on Amazon.com that can be mailed in a discrete box to your home or office within one day. The online bazaar even offers discount shipping and customer reviews of its prophylactics to ensure you are completely satisfied with your purchase. Though the ubiquitous "new and used" link for discounted items at Amazon is a bit creepy as well as the recommended purchases of action figures and the "Santa Buddies" video.

But if you need them now, our in-store reconnaissance found: We’ve got condoms. Lots of them. Right on the store shelves — though sometimes in some really strange places.


View Retail access of condoms map in a larger map

Just one of the 64 stores, we surveyed did not carry condoms at all. An employee at Sprouts, a natural food chain grocery in Boulder, said limited shelf space prevented the store from stocking such items.

The Downing Super, a store in a low-income Denver neighborhood that one enters through a metal detector, keeps its condoms behind the cash register so customers must request them. The store manager claims that theft problems forced the store to pull them from shelves. The Food Marketing Institute backs up his worry about sticky-fingered customers. Condoms rank 23rd among the 50 most frequently shoplifted grocery items.

The remaining 62 of 64 stores stocked a fairly wide variety of condoms but the quantity was much more limited in some lower income communities. In one Safeway store in a northwest Denver neighborhood with a high proportion of African-American and Latino residents, just three boxes were left on the empty shelf next to fully stocked displays of light bulbs and school supplies. Panetta expressed concern about the disparities and pledged to investigate.

While other urban retailers weren’t quite so short-handed the differences were stark between the quantity and type of condoms on the shelves in urban and suburban grocery and drug stores.

In decidedly more upscale Boulder, Colo., one can purchase a 12-pack of Naturalamb’s for $41.95 retail at Walgreen’s. Nothing says I love you like a $3.49 prophylactic which the manufacturer does not recommended for STI protection and one Amazon reviewer noted are "slimy, cold and smell strange" but gave it five stars for excellent sensation. Another Boulder store stocked condoms next to the cash register with the impulse buy items, like candy and butane lighters.

Whether the shelves are well-stocked or not, just finding the condoms can be an adventure in shopping.

Need a box of your favorite latex prophylactics? Besides the typical partnering with feminine hygiene products, try checking the bleach aisle where one busy Longmont, Colo., Safeway keeps its condoms. Going from natural to synthetic extremes, organic soap and pantyhose departments also seem to be popular places to stock condoms.

Wound care and diabetic supplies were also frequent neighbors of Trojan and Durex products. As was pairing them with diet supplements, vitamins and weight loss products.

Then, there’s the psychological retail approach with condoms placed next to shelves of baby food and stuffed animals. One store even combined their condom display with pregnancy tests and antacids. How’s that for marketing genius?

Believe it or not, there’s a real consumer science to how and where condoms are placed on shelves.

A 2006 U. of Connecticut study found significant differences in condom purchasing behavior of men and women.

Researchers created a mock drug store and placed condoms next to other grocery items deemed positive (health products like vitamins and nutrition bars), negative (tampons and antacids), sensual (massage oil and sexually suggestive magazines) and neutral (toothpaste, soap and cotton balls).

Men were significantly more likely to acquire condoms when they were in the sensual aisle than any other shelf placement. Though they were pretty immune and decidedly less self-conscious no matter where the condoms were located. On the contrary, women expressed more embarrassment in the sensual aisle and were significantly less likely to take the condoms there and with the negative product groups than any other place in the simulated store.

The researchers found that the conventional retail wisdom that stocking prophylactics near feminine hygiene products for women shopper’s convenience is actually nearly as big a turn off as shelving them near the hemorrhoid cream and adult diapers.

So to the Kmart manager in Loveland, Colo., where the condoms are in the triple-threat area — in front of the pharmacy window and next to the antacids and pregnancy tests — you might want to consider moving them for everyone concerned. The unintended birth rate in Larimer County is 39 percent and STIs are on the rise.

Where are condoms stocked in your neighborhood stores? Add a comment to this story with condom availability (on the shelf, locked in a case or in the pharmacy) and the name and address (street, city, state and zip code) of the store so we can build out our map beyond Colorado. And let us know what other products they’re stocked near too.

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  • heather-corinna

    This is BRILLIANT.

     

    Here in Seattle, things are fairly sensible.  You’ll find them in pharmacies and grocery stores either with the tampons or, at many Walgreens’ here, across from the pharmacists checkout, next to first-aid items.  I’m in 98107.

  • wendy-norris

    Thanks Heather.

     

    I do recall seeing the "condom jails" at a couple of Safeway stores here in Denver about a year ago. Thankfully, they disappeared soon after and the condoms were placed back on the shelves.

  • crowepps

    Was curious what came ahead of condoms on the list and how stores were handling those items so went and looked up the list. I was unable to access The Food Marketing Institute pdf file but found the following list of the top 10:

    10 Most Frequently Shoplifted Items
    Advil Tablets (50 count)
    Advil Tablets (100 count)
    Aleve Tablets (100 count)
    E.P.T. Pregnancy Test (single)
    Gillette Sensor (10 count)
    Kodak 200 Film (24 exposures)
    Similac Infant Formula w/ Iron (case)
    Similac Infant Formula w/ Iron (1 can)
    Preparation H Suppositories (12 count)
    Primatene Tablets (12 count)

    Anybody seen these locked up?

  • wendy-norris

    Good question!

     

    Razor blades are routinely under lock and key at the stores I frequent in Denver. Film is generally within close eye range of cashiers, especially at drug stores.

     

    I can’t attest to the other stuff on the list. A couple of weeks ago, while shopping, I saw a guy make a run for it out an emergency exit at Safeway with a bunch of steaks and crab claws stuffed down his sweat pants. It was quite the sight. So I guess anything is at risk for shoplifting.

  • princess-rot

    I was getting gas on the way home from work yesterday, and a burly taxi driver grabs this little skinny guy who was trying to make off with six bottles of concentrated detergent up his sweater. Cab driver hauls the little guy back to the station and the staff call security. This is about 11.30PM. I ask you, why steal detergent from a garage at nearly midnight? I went back to my car laughing my ass off.

  • wendy-norris

    That’s pretty strange. At least the soap stealer didn’t risk the serious shrinkage problem the Safeway frozen meat bandit did.

  • crowepps

    Certainly it would carry less stigma if the store’s policy of locking up condoms is part of a system where they are also locking up the razor blades, batteries, baby formula, etc., because then impression on the customers is that the store is concerned about theft rather than screening customers for whether they are ‘appropriately’ having sex.  The staff being trained to unlock and provide the products neutrally, whether it’s batteries or condoms, would then be key.

     

    Here locally in Alaska, the condoms are easily available out on the grocery shelves in the aisle with the sanitary napkins, adult diapers, etc.

  • princess-rot

    The most plausible theory (yeah, I got a long, boring drive home) is that he was homeless and would prefer to spend a night in the cells because it’s better than a bus stop or a doorway in NY in December, so he nicks something at random and allows himself to be caught.

  • catholictom

    Wendy, may God’s peace be with you.

     

    I don’t think condoms are the solution—to any problem. In fact, I think they only create more problems.

     

    To begin, simply, why does a boy or man put a condom on his penis? I would presume so that he could have sexual intercourse with a woman or another man. And, if a woman, he does not (or they do not) want what comes naturally from the sexual act—a baby. Problem #1: This fosters selfishness (not wanting a baby) and promiscuity (free sex, come and get it!) by only thinking of his or their own pleasure. Problem #2: Homosexual acts (but, I won’t go there now).

     

    Uh oh, the condom broke and semen entered the vaginal canal. Now we’ve got millions of sperm racing to find an egg. They do what they do best—and sure enough Mama’s pregnant! Many mothers would be jumping for joy, but not this one. Now what does she do? (Notice we’ve gone from the boy/man putting on the condom to now the girl/woman becoming pregnant.) Problem #3: It should be no shock, but we now have a pregnant girl/woman who is “surprised” to find herself pregnant. And the guy, I can just hear him saying, “Hey, they had such a nice display of these condoms at the drug store and they told us at school to use them so we wouldn’t get any STDs and now look what happened!” They have been duped, tricked into believing that you can play with fire all you want and you will never get burned. Well, you can usually squeak by for a while, but God/life has a way of helping us see that if you choose to act selfishly and only think of yourself and always feeling good, you may be awakened someday (by a two-by-four or other method) to learning to “play by the rules”.

     

    And the saddest and worst of all, Problem #4: What if the girl/woman believes what she reads and stops by one of those all-too-convenient Planned Parenthood offices and “just” has an abortion? She may think that takes away the problem, but does it? Or does it keep her awake every night of her life wondering about the “what if” in her life that never was? Was this another selfish act or was it somehow—in its own grisly and dismembering way—the “right” thing to do? Oh, and the innocent baby (the problem) dies in the process, did we mention that?

     

    So, I think your slightly lighthearted article needs to go a bit deeper and explore all the potential ramifications of condom use in particular and contraceptive use in general. There’s much more to it than pretty and prominent condom displays in stores. You see, it just might be that the more condoms we get in people’s hands, the more problems we are creating—not solving.

     

    Also, I’m also curious way you would mention condoms getting delivered to your home (from Amazon) “can be mailed in a discrete box to your home or office”. Why would you need them to arrive discretely? Is there something wrong with getting boatloads of boxes of condoms sent to you? Maybe you did corroborate my thoughts, after all, with this mentioned need for discretion.

  • prochoiceferret

    I don’t think condoms are the solution—to any problem. In fact, I think they only create more problems.

    As someone who is not familiar with the epidemiology, or… basically any form of actual real-world evidence relating to the impact of condoms on unwanted pregnancies and STD transmission, you are free to believe whatever you want. Lots of people believe that thimerosol causes autism, without a shred of scientific evidence in favor, after all.

     

    Let’s go over these, shall we?

     

    Non-Problem #1: Fosters selfishness? So does not giving all of one’s worldly possessions to charity. Have you given everything you own to the poor, CatholicTom? No? Why are you so selfish? And promiscuity? Are you saying that by not wanting a baby, people are having sex indiscriminately? Do you have any evidence for this?

     

    Non-Problem #2: Yes, let’s go there. What is wrong with homosexual acts? And I don’t mean "God said it’s bad," I mean, what is wrong with two consenting adults of the same sex being sexual with each other in the privacy of their own home?

     

    Non-Problem #3: Condoms fail sometimes. I don’t know of any sex-ed curriculum, whether comprehensive or abstinence-only, that leaves out that fact. That’s why it’s good to double-up contraceptive methods, e.g. use a condom plus hormonal contraceptives. Oh, and "rules?" All of modern medicine amounts to humans breaking God/nature’s "rules." Funny that I don’t see Catholics trash-talking that.

     

    Non-Problem #4: Most women who have abortions are glad to have had them. They don’t lie awake at night, wondering if they did the wrong thing, or whatever. (Sure, some women do feel this way. But you’re not going to suggest that abortion should be illegal because some women end up feeling bad about it afterward… by that logic, starting your own business would be absolutely impermissible!)

     

    So, I think your slightly lighthearted article needs to go a bit deeper and explore all the potential ramifications of condom use in particular and contraceptive use in general. There’s much more to it than pretty and prominent condom displays in stores. You see, it just might be that the more condoms we get in people’s hands, the more problems we are creating—not solving.

    Only a dogmatic Catholic would say that significantly reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy and STD transmission, but increasing the ease of recreational sex, amounts to "more problems we are creating—not solving."

  • grayduck

    "It’s well known that condoms are an inexpensive and effective method for preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections."

     

    Obviously, if a man and woman engage in sexual intercourse with a condom they are less likely to incur a pregnancy or spread a sexually transmitted infection from one individual to the other than if they engage in sexual intercourse without a condom. But that fact does not imply that "ensuring that all Coloradans regardless of where they live or their income have access to" condoms will result in fewer pregnancies or sexually-transmitted diseases. Moreover, other strategies- long-acting methods of contraception for pregnancy prevention and monogamy for STI prevention- are clearly superior. So why not promote those methods?

     

    http://www.abortiondiscussion.com

  • catholictom

    PCF, thanks for your response.

     

    Problem #1  But, isn’t it true that a boy/man will act differently if you give him a pocketful of condoms or you don’t give them a pocketful of condoms?  Just the fact that he has one to use changes his behavior and gives him a false sense of security that he may act on.

     

    Problem #3  Okay, we agree: condoms fail sometimes.  And so does "doubling up" methods.  And the girl/woman gets pregnant.  That’s my point!  This leaves her in a predicament.  Again, she has been lead to believe something untrue.  The only guarantee of not getting pregnant is not having sexual intercourse.  Realistic or not, that is a fact, no?

     

    Problem #4  You may be right.  Some, many or even most women that kill their baby(ies) are glad to have done it (that boggles my mind!), but what about those that (you admit) regret having done it–what do we do with them?  How can we comfort a mother with her loss? 

     

    No, I’m not "going to suggest that abortion should be illegal because some women end up feeling bad about it afterward", I’m suggesting that abortion should be illegal because it kills a human being.  And whenever a human dies, someone should grieve for him or her–that’s what we humans do, especially a mother for her own child.

     

    Since Roe v. Wade became law in 1973 the number of abortions performed on babies in the US has curiously not declined.

     

    From the evil-but-statistical Guttmacher Institute:  "The rate of abortion in the United States is at its lowest level since 1974, having declined 33% from a peak of 29 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 1980 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004."

     

    With all these available modern methods of contraception available, why is the rate of decline in the number of abortions only 33%.  Shouldn’t it be down 50-75-100%?  Can the 33% even be contributed to the use of contraceptives anyway?

     

    No, I still see lots of problems with the contraceptive mentality. 

  • princess-rot

    To be honest, CT, I’m not really surprised that you’re such a misanthrope you think babies are a veritable punishment for men and women who had sex without playing by the rules of your religion. You don’t think much of humanity unless they’re a fetus and you can make up the rules for them. I suppose it convieniently aligns with a religion that tells us all humanity is inherently dirty and damned.

  • prochoiceferret

    But, isn’t it true that a boy/man will act differently if you give him a pocketful of condoms or you don’t give them a pocketful of condoms? Just the fact that he has one to use changes his behavior and gives him a false sense of security that he may act on.

    Yes. They’ve done studies showing that people who wear seatbelts while driving tend to drive faster (i.e. more riskily) than those who can’t. Only a moron, however, would conclude that the proper course of action is to remove seat belts from cars so that people will drive more carefully.

    You may not have sex if condoms were not available, and you may know others who wouldn’t. But that won’t stop millions and millions of other people from doing it. And the difference then is you have millions of unwanted children born, and millions of STD transmissions. I would not call that an improvement.

    Okay, we agree: condoms fail sometimes. And so does "doubling up" methods. And the girl/woman gets pregnant. That’s my point! This leaves her in a predicament. Again, she has been lead to believe something untrue.

    What untruth has she been led to believe? She would have been aware of the risks. It’s no worst than getting into a car, and then being injured in a car crash—surely you haven’t been led to believe that an automobile is a 100% safe form of transport, have you?

    The only guarantee of not getting pregnant is not having sexual intercourse. Realistic or not, that is a fact, no?

    The only guarantee of not getting in a traffic accident is never getting into a road vehicle. Realistic or not, that is a fact, no?

    You may be right. Some, many or even most women that kill their baby(ies) are glad to have done it (that boggles my mind!), but what about those that (you admit) regret having done it–what do we do with them? How can we comfort a mother with her loss?

    The same way we comfort her when she goes through any other major life event. Which is to say (1) there’s nothing particularly different about how abortion regret is addressed versus other difficult happenings in a person’s life, and (2) it’s not appropriate for "we" to do anything, if we are strangers to the woman in question, and she does not want our help.

    No, I’m not "going to suggest that abortion should be illegal because some women end up feeling bad about it afterward", I’m suggesting that abortion should be illegal because it kills a human being.

    Abortion concerns the removal of a fetus from a woman who does not give consent to provide it with life support. The fact that the fetus invariably dies after this is irrelevant. If you think forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is acceptable in a civilized society, then we’re going to have to part ways here. If you want to live in barbarism, please do it without us.

    (Would you prohibit the woman from having an abortion if her pregnancy were the result of rape?)

    Since Roe v. Wade became law in 1973 the number of abortions performed on babies in the US has curiously not declined.

    Seeing as how you denigrate basic measures that can reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies (i.e. condoms), I wonder if you see this as a good thing.

    With all these available modern methods of contraception available, why is the rate of decline in the number of abortions only 33%. Shouldn’t it be down 50-75-100%? Can the 33% even be contributed to the use of contraceptives anyway?

    Perhaps if conservatives didn’t stand in the way of evidence-based comprehensive sexual education and subsidized contraceptive access in this country, we would see lower rates of unwanted pregnancy and thus abortion. Do you know what percentage of people having abortions had access to both affordable and effective forms of contraception, and knowledge on how to use them properly?

    No, I still see lots of problems with the contraceptive mentality.

    Not nearly as many problems as the anti-contraceptive mentality, unless you consider STDs and unwanted pregnancies up the wazoo to be a Good Thing(tm).

  • catholictom

    Princess Rot (hey, some name!)

     

    "you’re such a misanthrope"

     

    Wow, misanthrope — had to look that one up! I went back and read my posts and can’t see where I eschew a hate for humanity. On the contrary, I’m a defender of humanity–in all stages of life.

     

    "babies are a veritable punishment"

     

    I never think babies are a punishment. No, you have it backwards. I love babies! It’s the "people having sex without playing by the rules" that think babies are a punishment.

     

    "You don’t think much of humanity unless they’re a fetus"

     

    What do you base that on?  What single word of hate have I mentioned?  And what rules have I made up for a fetus?  I thought we had already established that: don’t kill any human beings.

     

    "a religion that tells us all humanity is inherently dirty and damned"

     

    On the contrary, since you bring up my religion–Christianity–here is what we believe:

    For thousands of years people were confused about just what God thought and just what it meant to be alive as a human being. Then, one day, a baby was born (a baby that considering the circumstances could have easily and rightly been aborted) in the city of Bethlehem. This baby grew and it became known that he was the offspring of God Almighty. This very act, once and for all, proved the decency, worthiness and beauty of humankind. We are not dirty nor damned; we are blessed.

    Now, what comes with all that is still a life to lead–a life that is not all rosy and carefree. We are presented with choices throughout our lifetimes and with each decision we make there are consequences in the now and in eternity. What we choose and how we choose matters greatly.

     

     

  • catholictom

    "Abortion concerns the removal of a fetus from a woman who does not give consent to provide it with life support. The fact that the fetus invariably dies after this is irrelevant."

     

    PCF, you have left me speechless and in tears with that blunt and inhumane statement and I have no words for you in response–only prayers and a picture of what you say is irrelevant.

     

     

  • prochoiceferret

    PCF, you have left me speechless and in tears with that blunt and inhumane statement and I have no words for you in response

    Welcome to a world where not every pregnancy is wanted and perfect and beautiful. Don’t like it? Then join our efforts to ensure that everyone has access to contraception, and knows how to use it.

    Voltaire once said, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Here, we could say something similar… "We want you to be prepared so that you never find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy, but if you do, we will defend to the death your right to have an abortion."

    We are pro-choice. Not pro-abortion. We don’t want people to have abortions any more than we want them to have heart surgery, and we believe that if people are educated and provided with the right resources, they will take steps to avoid either. If you really, honestly want to reduce the rate of abortion—as opposed to finger-wagging people not to have sex, or punish women for being "loose," or otherwise stoke your ego up on a high horse—we know how to achieve that in the real world.

    only prayers and a picture of what you say is irrelevant.

    Are you going to argue that abortion, a surgical procedure, should be illegal because it can yield stomach-turning photos? Because then, autopsies would be the worst abomination ever to hit mankind.

  • colleen

    you have left me speechless and in tears with that blunt and inhumane statement

     

    Imagine how we respond to the blunt inhumanity and pseudo-moralistic babbling of those who denounce ‘the contraceptive mentality’.

     

     

     

     

     

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • crowepps

    Moreover, other strategies- long-acting methods of contraception for pregnancy prevention and monogamy for STI prevention- are clearly superior. So why not promote those methods?

     

    Long-term contraception has side effects, is expensive and fails sometimes.  People have been advocating monogramy for what?  10,000 years?  STDs are still around, so apparently it hasn’t worked.

  • crowepps

    Because then, autopsies would be the worst abomination ever to hit mankind.

    The Church used to ban, prosecute for heresy and excommunicate those who performed autopsies because they would result in a "mutilated" body at resurrection. 

  • prochoiceferret

    The Church used to ban, prosecute for heresy and excommunicate those who performed autopsies because they would result in a "mutilated" body at resurrection.

    Thanks for that tidbit, crowepps. Whenever I think the Church can’t possibly have sunk to some particular level, I always seem to get shown up….

  • crowepps

    For hundreds and hundreds of years the Catholic Church successfully maintained a monopoly by carefully managing change, restricting the investigation of knowledge to clergy and then censoring the results to be sure they wouldn’t negatively impact the Church.  It’s no surprise that this lead to some peculiarities.  I think my favorite is the resistence by the Church in Portugal of including mathematics/algebra in the school curriculum (for aristocratic children) because the Bible was written with Roman numerals and algebra used so-called Arabic numerals.  Obviously, they eventually lost.  It is impossible to do the necessary computations for navigating a ship using Roman numerals.