Planned Parenthood is the largest sex ed provider in the nation, and works to offer low-cost health resources in communities across the United States. But the group’s efforts to lower the rates of STD transmission are sparking considerable controversy in Memphis, Tennessee. Last week, the organization erected billboards advertising a program that offers free condoms to people in the Memphis region — but some residents are already trying to get them taken down, saying they’re too “explicit” to appear on the side of busy highways where a lot of people will see them.
“I was totally shocked and appalled that anyone would have the audacity to put up a billboard that shows a photo of a condom,” one East Memphis resident, Karen Wallace, told local outlet WREG-TV. “The graphic was not necessary.”
The billboard that Wallace is referring to consists of the photograph of an unwrapped condom that is pictured above. It also proclaims “Getting It On Is Free” and directs people to the campaign’s website. There are at least 60 locations across Memphis — including nail salons, churches, tattoo parlors, schools, and health clinics — offering free condoms as part of the campaign.
But local media has been somewhat skeptical about Planned Parenthood’s effort. “Some people wonder why it needs to be racy,” a different outlet, WMC-TV, notes in a story about the new billboards.
“A condom is really not an explicit image; it’s a piece of latex,” Ashley Coffield, the CEO at Planned Parenthood of the Greater Memphis Region, explained in an interview with WREG-TV. “Children see explicit images all the time on the Internet, in commercials, on television, and in movies. We’re trying to promote healthy relationships and save lives.”
Coffield says that her organization is attempting to “normalize condoms,” because removing the stigma about using them can help encourage more people to practice safe sex. Planned Parenthood’s ongoing campaign — which involves both billboards and bus ads — has given away 100,000 free condoms so far.
STD rates are on the rise in states in the mid-South, including Tennessee. As a whole, the U.S. has the highest rate of STD infections in the developed world — an ongoing epidemic that incurs billions of dollars in health costs every year. Medical professionals agree that’s partly because American youth aren’t exposed to accurate information about sexual health from a young age, since not every part of the country requires comprehensive sex ed classes. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called on schools to change that, as well as make condoms more accessible to teens.
Nonetheless, Memphis residents’ reaction to Planned Parenthood’s campaign is hardly an anomaly. Efforts to expand sexual health resources are frequently met with harsh criticism from social conservatives, who claim that it isn’t appropriate for teenagers to learn the accurate terms for bodies and the sexual activity that occurs between them.