Our Cultural Arbiters

The three major television networks have told Congress that they have no intention for now of accepting advertisements for condoms, because they fear that to do so could offend the tastes of some of their viewers. Consider: These are the same networks whose programming emphasis on sexual titillation stops just short of approximating the practices at a Babylonian orgy. But while anything apparently goes with sex--which builds ratings--the networks want to have nothing to do with condoms, not even as a product for helpingto prevent the sexual transmission of the deadly AIDS virus. The networks, publicly licensed to inform as well as to entertain, take refuge in the plea that some in their audience would be disturbed if people were more generally alerted to the proven prophylactic value of condoms.

U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop wants condom ads on television because condoms offer the best protection against AIDS for those who don't "practice abstinence or monogamy." Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) compares the networks' refusal to carry condom ads to that of a doctor who refuses to clear up a patient's case of syphilis with antibiotics on the ground that to do so could encourage promiscuous sex. This goes to the heart of what the networks are worried about. They don't want to be accused of encouraging sex outside marriage, and they don't want to be accused of promoting contraception. Sheltering behind these fears, the networks ignore Dr. Koop's assessment that condom ads "would have a positive public health benefit."

An increasing number of general-circulation publications, including The Times, accept condom ads. Some local television and radio stations are beginning to; KABC-AM has announced that it will. Television, quite properly, carries ads for feminine-hygiene products, for hemorrhoid medications, for constipation remedies, without burdening itself excessively with concerns about taste. None of the conditions that these advertised products address are known to be life-threatening. AIDS is. It is absurd for the networks to withhold potentially life-saving information from the public by refusing to carry condom ads.

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