What Sweden's condom ambulance teaches about efforts to make sex safer
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
Ten years ago, Swedish parents were having one giant, collective conniption. According to sexual health researchers, their children (aged 16 to 25) simply weren’t using condoms—or at least 75 percent of them weren’t. And while pregnancies weren’t on the rise, the nation found itself with a massive chlamydia epidemic, doubling its diagnoses over the course of just one year, mostly amongst youths. It was an outbreak of sexually transmitted infections that not even after-school specials could solve. But a few wily thinkers saw the opportunity in this widespread chlamydia bloom, and began to dream up new, creative ways to make prophylactic use both easy and accessible.
Inspired by the crisis of 2004, the brilliant Swedish minds who had debuted Skype to the world just a year earlier created the Condom Ambulance. Launched by local non-profit Swedish Association on Sexuality Education, a small fleet of white vans was deployed in Stockholm and the major southern cities of Gothenburg and Malmo, stocked with protection for the ill equipped. Couples in the heat of passion could now pick up a phone and dial 696969 for a speedy, discreet, and inexpensive emergency condom delivery. The world, aroused by this stroke of genius, took immediate, appreciative note.
Unfortunately for sweaty Scandinavians everywhere, the ambulances, while a clever bit of public relations, were just a short-term stunt, available only for one solitary, promotional month. But years after the condom ambulances disappeared from the streets of Sweden’s metropolises, their memory has been kept alive and well on the internet. Part of the longevity of this fleeting venture comes from the humor of a sexual public infrastructure—like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* made real. But the other reason for the persistence of the condom delivery concept is that the outbreak that originally moved Sweden to launch its rubber raiders is still a reality in America today.
According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, condom usage among American youth has been sinking over the last couple of decades, just as in Sweden circa 2004. Also comparable was data released by the CDC in 2013 showing that, of the 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections reported in America each year, half were reported in youths, despite the fact that they made up only a quarter of the sexually active population. Worse yet, these high levels of sexually transmitted disease were costing the already strapped U.S. healthcare system up to $16 billion per year.
Given those statistics, it’s little wonder that America has tested its fair share of condom ambulances and similar programs over the past few years. The most notorious was a one-man ambulance, CondAm, founded Kyle McCabe in October 2012, when he was just a sophomore at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township. Picking up where closed health centers and pharmacies left off, McCabe took orders by phone, text, or the web, and ran around the campus of 6,000 students wearing a siren and flashing blue light, delivering Trojans. Customers could get “The Quick Fix” package, consisting of one condom for $3, “The Seasoned Pro,” or five for $5, and for the endurance athlete, “The Marathon Man” would provide 10 rubbers for just $7. At the height of his service, McCabe’s business boasted an option for unobtrusive delivery, vegan condoms, and a sleek webpage and ordering interface.
That same year, New York’s upscale boutique sex shop, Babeland responded to an increasing number of patrons placing rush orders by launching a $30 courier service, sending condoms, lube, and sex toys to couples in need. Meanwhile, in Easton, PA, some entrepreneurs started the Dollar Rubber Club, a home delivery service that offered monthly subscription plans, helping to eliminate last-minute runs to the drugstore. A year later, Durex announced the launch of its SOS Condoms app, wherein a phone order would summon a disguised deliveryman with a batch of condoms—they had 12,512 downloads within the first two months of 2013.
Despite the recurrence of the trope, vast media coverage, and consistent consumer excitement, every one of these ventures collapsed. Dollar Rubber Club was dead within months, and Durex’s SOS app closed up shop after letting its users decide where it would launch its services next—only to realize jokesters had demanded they begin operating in the conservative southeastern Turkish oil town of Batman. McCabe’s CondAm made it a bit longer—his last post on Twitter, retweeting a happy condom recipient, came in August of 2013. And a 2011 study of Swedish youth found that there had once again been a sharp uptick in chlamydia, even after the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control’s “Chlamydia Monday,” a national day of awareness, celebrated on September 13, 2010.
Ultimately these flashy condom projects, fun and innovative as they may have seemed, failed for simple reasons. Swedish kids thought it would be embarrassing to have a screeching siren pull up to their houses just to drop off rubbers. What would the neighbors think? Plus, the wait still proved to be too long—if the moment was right, many would rather just get to it and go without. And besides, a lot of people just never worked up a healthy enough fear of sexually transmitted diseases. Satisfied with the contraceptive pill or an IUD’s ability to prevent pregnancy, too many were willing to take their chances with infection, choosing to skip the mood-killing condom and the even more mood-killing condom deliveryman.
If we’ve learned one thing from Sweden’s experiment and America’s own imitations, it’s not to be too twee with condom delivery. According to the CDC, the best way to make a difference isn’t with splashy campaigns, but with free, wide-scale distribution of condoms led at the community level by familiar people in often frequented places, like clubs, barbershops, and hotels. Or we might be looking in the wrong direction altogether in the quest to make condom usage easier or more appealing, as Bill Gates thinks—it could be that rather than find clever ways of delivering condoms, we need to design better condoms, reducing the loss (or reputation for loss) of sexual pleasure, and then marketing the hell out of them. Gates is already pushing to make this a reality, setting up a grant for just such an invention. And while the best way to get people to use condoms is still up for debate, for some of us nostalgic types, contraception will never get better than the Era of the Condom Ambulance.