Have You Ever Tried to Burn a Condom?

Late last year, sometime around World AIDS Day, someone sent me a link to a piece of art and activism, a poster with the image of a burning condom called Litany for Burning Condoms.

The image and words are shared by Chaplin Christopher Jones and Ted Kerr, inspired by the work and lived experience of Chaplain Jones. The poster itself was part of poster/VIRUS, from AIDS Action Now, curated by Alex McClelland and Jessica Whitbread.

One of the many things that made the poster such an effective intervention is that the image stopped me in my tracks. As the first line of the litany reads:

"It's hard to stay silent when faced with burning condoms."

Although in my case I have to admit that at first I was silent. I was silent because I didn't know what to say. I had questions: Why are they burning that condom? Is it a statement about the people who make condoms? The people (like me) who sometimes give them away? Is it more than a statement, is it an act of generation, a calling out and not only response?

My curiosity was not the kind of curiosity that seeks to understand how what I am seeing maps on to what I already know. It was the kind that is born from having no idea what I'm seeing, from simply wanting to know more.

So I read on...

We burn condoms to say we are whole.
We burn condoms to say we matter.
We burn condoms to remember.
We burn condoms to say that public health does not have all the answers.
We burn condoms to exercise our voice and power of choice.

The litany continues, 39 lines in all. Each line a litany unto itself, offering statements that seem simple but are also terribly, sometimes wretchedly complex.

Reading it, feeling it and thinking around it, was so powerful that I knew I wanted to write something, but I've been waiting, hoping I'd come up with something brilliant to say. Nothing brilliant came, and I think that the litany does its job in part because it makes it hard to have such a response. It calls for responses that are like it; simple and complex, and not always satisfying.

What I struggle with in the text is how it's hard for me to let go of what seems like such a "natural" connection between condoms and sexual health. It's how I was raised, it's how I was trained. People can choose to use or not use condoms, but what's the point of burning them when they could be an effective solution for someone else?

What the litany reminds me is that that idea of condoms as solution is as much about me and my white, middle-class body which was raised and trained in particular ways as it is about condoms, or the idea of solutions.

I was thinking about this word, solutions, when I went to my kitchen sink to give it a try, to try and burn a condom.* As the litany says

It's hard to burn condoms. It takes time, partnership and patience.
It's dangerous, stinky, challenging, beautiful and shocking.

All of this was true. As I was leaning over the sink, hypnotized by the slow orange flame and trying to avoid breathing in the toxic fumes I came back to this idea of condoms as solution. I can't believe I hadn't thought of it before. Growing up Jewish, the word solution was one I understood to have many meanings. Solutions may be good, but mostly they are good for the people who define the problem. What came to me was a line I would add if others were invited to add to the litany:

We burn condoms because a solution itself can be a devastating problem.

I'm deeply grateful to Chaplin Christopher Jones and Ted Kerr for producing this poster, and sharing it with the world, for reminding me that I am not alone in this world, and I have to remember to listen to the people around me, and for allowing me to share the image. Find out more about Poster/VIRUS here.

*The sex educator in me who is still resisting the truth of the litany wants to say that the condom was expired, as if to justify the burning... as if the act isn't justification itself.