Can a Prom Dress Made of Condoms Get Teens to Practice Safe Sex?

An organization in America’s heartland hopes the colorful gowns can drive down STD rates.
(Photos: Adolescent Health Project)
Mar 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s that time of year when teenagers are scouring the mall for the perfect outfits to wear on prom night. But while controversies over youths sporting gender-nonconforming clothing—or girls donning gowns that schools say show too much skin—have become common, a pair of unconventional dresses are serving as a reminder that choosing to use a condom could be the most important wardrobe decision a teen makes on prom night.

The dresses, on display at two formal-wear stores in Omaha, Nebraska, are made entirely out of unexpected material: dozens and dozens of colorful condoms.

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The gowns, featuring price tags that read “Being safe is always in style,” are part of an STD awareness campaign from the Adolescent Health Project, in Omaha. The Women’s Fund of Omaha, a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in the community, launched the program in January 2015 with the goal of curbing STD rates.

“First and foremost, we want [teens] to think about their sexual health and their futures,” Brenda Council, coordinator of the project, wrote in an email to TakePart. “We want them to go to our websites and obtain accurate information about STDs and teen pregnancy.” Council hopes that if teens decide to have sex—on prom night or any other time—they’ll “engage in safe sex practices.”

(Photo: Adolescent Health Project)

The emphasis on STD awareness among teenagers is essential. Young people between the ages of 13 and 24 contracted 26 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and half of youths who are infected don’t realize it.

But it’s not just HIV that adolescents have to worry about. According to the Office of Adolescent Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, youths ages 15 to 24 are nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STDs each year. Roughly 40 percent of teen girls who are sexually active have contracted an STD, such as chlamydia or syphilis, that can cause infertility or even death.

Things are especially bad in Omaha, which hadn’t updated the sex-ed curriculum taught in its public schools for 30 years. According to a 2015 report released by the Douglas County Health Department, which serves the city, the rate of STD infection there is nearly double the rate of the U.S. population as a whole. Youths ages 15 to 24 have the highest infection rates.

To reverse that alarming trend, the Adolescent Health Project has initiated several public-awareness campaigns over the past year, including a series of graphic billboards that resemble infected skin. The billboards feature gross tag lines, such as “Him and herpes” and “Ignorance is blisters.” The project recently obtained the condom dresses from Serve Marketing, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit advertising agency. Serve loaned the dresses, which were created by art and fashion students in Milwaukee, to be displayed in Omaha.

Although the dresses are displayed in shops that cater to women, Council wrote that the project isn’t shouldering girls with all the responsibility for safe sex. “Our STD and teen pregnancy prevention efforts are directed at all adolescents,” she wrote. Young men, who are experiencing some of the highest rates of HIV infection nationally, according to the CDC, are responsible for their sexual health too. Unfortunately, the project was “unable to secure a condom tuxedo.”

As for what happens after prom night is over, the “Omaha Public Schools have adopted the standards for a comprehensive sex education curriculum and are in the process of field testing curriculum that align with those standards. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the adoption of the new curriculum in May,” wrote Council.