Researchers from RMIT in Melbourne and Vietnam have worked together to examine condom taboos in Vietnam, as part of efforts to boost safe sex practices in the country.
The collaborative transnational team of researchers has recommended shops and pharmacies openly display condoms as a public health measure.
The team also suggests the Vietnamese Government may have a role in helping to overcome taboos about display and retailing condoms in the country.
The team - which includes RMIT University Vietnam’s Nguyen Hong Hai Dang and Dr Lukas Parker alongside Professor Linda Brennan from the School of Media and Communication in Melbourne - found Vietnam’s pharmacies were major culprits in locking away condoms out of sight.
This is partly due to potential embarrassment but also because they do not see condoms as a core part of their business.
In addition, the team recommends there should be no market for out-of-date condoms as part of tighter pharmacy standards and regulations.
The researchers said the measures were necessary because unsafe sex practices were a concern: sexually transmitted disease is increasing in Vietnam and the country has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
The team, which worked with Alice Clements from NGO Plan International to investigate issues around the social marketing of condoms, found government and health authorities needed to ensure condoms were available in accessible and non-confrontational locations.
Ms Nguyen said that increasing the accessibility and availability of condoms was of paramount importance if some of the substantive problems associated with unsafe sex were to be addressed.
“However, Vietnam is a society in transition and so are some of the practices that surround traditionally taboo subjects such as sexual behaviour,” she said.
“Sex outside marriage is not openly countenanced, although it is evident from the number of STDs that it takes place.”
The researchers found condom boutiques were the best outlets for consumers, because as specialty “destination” stores they cut through the general clutter of other retail outlets.
However, they labelled pharmacies and small retailers as being “out of touch with the needs of their target market”.
On interview, common reasons given by pharmancy staff to justify their placing of condoms in locked cases included “cultural sensitivity”, “discretion”, “condoms are secondary products” and “people aren’t embarrassed to ask for it”.
“However, why exactly condoms would be sufficiently important enough to lock away but not important enough to have readily available is something that could or would not be explained to our research team,” Ms Nguyen said.
The researchers said that despite the taboos, a normalisation of condom retailing in Ho Chi Minh City appears to be occurring, particularly with condom boutiques.
Inventive vendors also seem to be getting around the disadvantage of the public nature of shopping in Vietnam by setting up carts selling cigarettes and condoms.
With a packet of condoms around the same size as a packet of cigarettes, a buyer can get off their motor bike and buy condoms in full view and no-one will know except the vendor.
“Whether people actually purchase condoms from these open-to-the-street and brightly lit destination retailers is worth investigating in a further study,” Ms Dang said.