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Why The 'Condom Challenge' May Not Be Promoting Safe Sex

Red, yellow and green condom on white background.
Red, yellow and green condom on white background.

There was planking. Neknominations. The Harlem Shake. And the ice bucket challenge.

But the latest video craze to go worldwide is perhaps weirder than them all.

The “condom challenge” is a viral video that involves people -- mostly teenagers -- filling a condom with water and then dropping it on to the head of their willing victim.

When it drops, the condom breaks open to cover the head of the participant, enclosing them in a temporary latex-and-water prison.

It usually works, and it’s usually funny -- but the social media buzz reportedly has a serious side. Pieces from Mashable, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post outline how the videos posted online are trying to emphasise safe sex by showing how much a condom can stretch -- and thus how condoms can fit a penis of any size.

But does the one-size-fits-all approach to condoms actually promote safe sex?

Condoms come in a range of sizes and materials, from “snug fit” right through to the much-mocked Magnum brand, known for its larger condoms. They’re made from latex (most often), latex-free (for those with latex sensitivities or allergies), lambskin and other materials.

What’s more, condom sizes don’t just focus on length. Girth is also an important factor -- with condoms available in Australia and overseas ranging from 41-69mm.

Some experts suggest those sizes are there for a reason, and that the viral “condom challenge” isn’t quite hitting the mark with its message.

“You definitely want to make sure you’re using the right size. If the condom is too small it’s going to slip, too big and you may experience breakages,” sex educator and managing director of the Youth Wellbeing Project, Liz Walker, told The Huffington Post Australia.

“You want to create a tight fit, but not too tight. As part of intercourse a good erection maintained throughout sex is important,” she said.

Slippages or breakages of condoms could lead to the transmission of STIs, the need for women to access emergency contraception, or unwanted pregnancy.

But Walker also said the videos could raise awareness among young people of the need to wear protection more generally, saying anything that draws attention to the importance of condoms is good.

“Everyone can use a condom -- don’t blame it on the condom,” she said.

Associate Professor Rachel Skinner, a clinical academic whose research includes condom and contraception use, told HuffPost Australia that it was uncommon for condoms to break, but there were circumstances where it occurred.

“Condoms are at risk of breaking in a number of situations. If they’re stretched too much, that would be the case. And also if lubricants aren’t used, and if they’re left beyond their use-by-date,” she said.

She said condoms should be used in all circumstances, especially for young people, who typically experience a high rate of STI transmission.

“Trying them out beforehand, that they fit, that they’re comfortable, that they fit quite firmly -- so they don’t come off."

She said condom size was less important than making sure you use the condom correctly.

“I don’t have a strong concern about getting the right size. I don’t really think that that is a major concern. In general, the average size would cover everybody. Except in certain circumstances.”

The condom challenge is, however, raising other concerns - with The Guardian calling it a new way for teens to potentially maim themselves.

"As a rule, please do not put airtight seals over your mouth and nose, particularly when they are also filled with water. It is a Bad Idea," reports The Guardian's Alex Hern.

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