MotherJones JF93: Ballooning statistics

As part of his six-month stint abroad every year, Brice Atkinson, a contractor at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), surveys health officials to determine how many times a country’s typical couple has sex.

Atkinson belongs to a staff of demographers, health officials, economists, sociologists, and private contractors who spent nearly $40 million in 1991 distributing 842,106,000 condoms to the developing world for family planning and AIDS prevention. The number of condoms each country received is based on a survey of its coital frequency rate. Although the generally accepted average is 100 times per year, in a recent compilation, Brazil topped the list with an average CFR of 97; Ghana was at the bottom with 14.

“In every country the men feel that they are unique and that they make love more frequently or their penises are larger and longer,” Atkinson says. “If you ask a guy how many times he’s had sex in a week he’ll usually say seven. The surveyor writes that number down and then quickly asks, ‘How many times have you had sex this week?’ The man will respond something like, ‘Well, this week only twice because I had a cold.’ We can be pretty sure that the second number is more accurate.”

The irony surrounding USAID’s overseas family-planning programs is that they would never be accepted domestically. During election years especially, agency officials worry themselves sick that a Jesse Helms or a Bill Dannemeyer will take an interest in their work.

“Birth control is less controversial abroad,” says population office director Duff Gillespie. “There are blinking billboards encouraging vasectomies, a soccer team with a stylized rubber as a mascot, and full-page condom ads in newspapers.”

USAID condoms come in two sizes. “The 49s and 52s (mm in diameter) have served us well,” says another agency official, Carl Hemmer. Forty-niners are distributed to Asian countries, and the 52s are offered everywhere else. “That’s traditional judgment more than scientific,” Hemmer adds.

Now there’s a proposal by a foreign manufacturer for 55s. “We don’t have fitting salons,” Hemmer says. “The size debate is measuring male egos rather than other parts of the anatomy.”

The size issue caused a brouhaha recently in Italy, when Health Minister Francesco de Lorenzo announced that the smallest regulation size for condoms sold in Italy was larger than in the rest of Europe. The newspaper Il Giornale blared, “At least Italy is maxi in something,” while L’Unita, the newspaper of the former Communist Party, suggested that foreigners might want to bring their own condoms when visiting. De Lorenzo later retracted his statement when it was discovered that Italy’s condoms were the same as those everywhere else.