Exhibition Review | 'Rubbers: The Life, History & Struggle of the Condom'
Unrolled, Unbridled and Unabashed
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
In the 18th century Casanova referred to them as “English frock coats” and made prodigious use of the “little preventive bag invented by the English to save the fair sex from anxiety.” In 1709 the English literary journal The Tatler alluded to their supposed invention by an eponymous doctor of “eminent Quality”; the success of his “Engine” eventually “made it an Immodesty to name his Name.”
But there was never a Dr. Condom as far as we can tell, and no one really knows who first created condoms (or named them), since bladders, animal membranes, sheaths and salve-coated cloths have been used for similar purposes since the beginning of recorded history.
Spend some time at the fascinating new exhibition at the Museum of Sex, “Rubbers: The Life, History & Struggle of the Condom,” and their origins hardly matter: their history is what is extraordinary. These commonplace objects — widely used and rarely spoken of, often seen but infrequently displayed — are icons of far more than the phallus.
The museum’s curator, Sarah Forbes, has gathered condom boxes and vending machines, horrific photos of disease and collections of birth-control devices, American military videos and a dress made out of dyed condoms, television commercials and artworks, creating a modest exhibition that elevates the status of the condom. And, not incidentally, the show explicitly encourages its use — particularly, as one major section reminds us, to prevent the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS.
It is no wonder that the company that makes Trojan condoms became a sponsor of the exhibition, though the extent of its presence here is limited, including a display of contemporary equipment used in making condoms (metallic phallic molds that are dipped into liquid latex, for example) and a video of laboratory tests showing their resiliency. (Condoms are attached to valves and inflated, becoming enormous balloons well before they finally burst.)
The evolution of the condom is too briefly told, but it includes Charles Goodyear’s discovery of a treatment for rubber that retained its flexibility; a photograph of a well-preserved reusable rubber sheath from mid-20th-century London is here. In Germany, we learn, condoms are colloquially referred to as Fromms because that was the name of the Jewish manufacturer who, before the Nazis came to power, sold 50 million condoms a year. (His condoms were also, interestingly, packaged with slips of paper that could be discreetly handed to a pharmacist, ordering another supply.) But Julius Fromm had to flee to London and lost the factory.
It is partly because condoms graphically suggest the sex act that they have so often been known through their covers: a collection of boxes and containers here range from antique exoticism (picturing desert camels) to whimsical contemporaneity (portraits of candidates from the last presidential election). A New York pharmacy case has wooden doors that would have decorously concealed the contents until the customer was prepared to survey the various Sheik condoms for sale. Condoms have also accumulated nicknames that are covers of sorts, hiding their identity while provocatively suggesting it. (A wall displays a roster of aliases, including, most mildly, “copper hat,” “love sock,” “frogskin,” “night cap.”)
Condoms have encouraged sophomoric humor (a historical etching of Casanova shows him blowing into a condom and inflating it for the amused delectation of his lady admirers) and avant-gardish flirtatiousness (as in Randy Polumbo’s artworks on display, which include a ribbed dirigible and a solar-powered flying machine that inflates and deflates attached condoms).
And they have a dark side, which casts its shadow over such play. There are early photographs here of victims of syphilis, including a chilling image of a pox-covered baby nursing at a pox-covered breast.
Like the diseases they prevent, condoms have also proliferated with the march of armies. As the show points out, 18,000 American soldiers a day were on sick leave with venereal diseases during World War I, inspiring the United States government to begin a campaign about the transmission of disease and the distribution of military “pro-kits” to allow cleansing and protection.
The show’s grim accounting of sexually transmitted disease is tempered by an upbeat 2006 news account of a Florida retirement community in which condom use is being encouraged for its residents because of the spread of sexual diseases. The cure and the prevention have become so routine, they scarcely intrude on the pleasures.
But the last half of the exhibition is more preoccupied with controversy: the condom becomes a political instrument in long-running cultural and religious debates. A 1915 edition of Margaret Sanger’s once-controversial book, “What Every Girl Should Know,” is here. (Her birth-control advocacy led to the creation of Planned Parenthood.) So is a 1989 poster of deliberate crudity attacking the pope and the Roman Catholic Church for opposing the use of condoms for birth control and disease prevention.
The onset of H.I.V. and AIDS in the 1980s created another crisis in which advertisements and educational materials invoked death and disease, just as the warnings about sexual diseases did in earlier centuries. One series of commercials shown here, from MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, depicts passionate sex, ending with the man pulling a gun on his lover: unprotected sex is murder.
But while the earlier response to similar dangers was chastisement (avoid prostitutes; keep a “healthy mind and clean body,” warns a 1941 United States Army film), here the condom offers another possibility: a series of Keith Haring drawings promote both sexual activity and protection, offering satisfaction along with immunity.
This message is literally a promotion of the condom; the condom even becomes a cause. This is one impulse behind the purple couture cocktail dress displayed here, designed by Adriana Bertini: it is constructed from 1,200 hand-dyed condoms. In such a form the condom is not private but public, not hidden but extravagantly and profusely evident. It is associated with pleasure, not prevention, but is meant to provide both. Such is the new image of the condom.
Yet this is just a variation on a theme. The history of condoms is a chronicle of appetite and fear, of desire and darkness. The aspect of condoms that offends some orthodox religious beliefs, after all, is that it treats the possibility of pregnancy as something as unwanted as a disease, something to be prevented for the sake of sexual gratification: the condom is an indulgence, an avoidance.
If the condom appears to be a sign of promiscuous satisfaction, though, it is also, in its essence, a compromise: at the moment of greatest potential pleasure, it interferes. It requires that the rush of desire be interrupted, its course modified, its sensation diminished. At the moment of being consumed by the present, a concern with the future intrudes. The condom is a declaration of sacrifice in the midst of indulgence. It is evidence of civilization and its discontents.
“Rubbers: The Life, History & Struggle of the Condom” is on view at the Museum of Sex, 233 Fifth Avenue, at 27th Street; (212) 689-6337, museumofsex.com.