The brightly colored condom vending machines carrying the "Be prepared" warning are the brainchild of Stefanie Held, former director of Bryan's House, the home for pediatric AIDS patients.
Held, who has been an AIDS activist since 1986, believes that the only short-term solution to the AIDS epidemic is to convince more people to use condoms. But a major challenge, she says, is to overcome the stigma and embarrassment most people still feel about buying condoms.
Although buying them from a vending machine in a bar or gas station offers anonymity, squeamish safe sex practitioners are intimidated when confronted by a dispenser decorated with lurid images of women and "for a good time call" graffiti scrawled across their surfaces.
"It's very embarrassing for people to buy [condoms], particularly women. That's why we have them in the restrooms," Held says. "It provides a private place for them to get condoms."
Held, who worked for several years as a commercial artist, hopes to upgrade the lowly condom machines' tawdry image by producing imaginatively decorated dispensers and placing them in the restrooms--men's and women's--of even the best local restaurants and bars.
The unique rectangular high-gloss metal boxes are individually custom-designed with clear plastic artwork to complement the decor of their environment--Held's theory being that people are more likely to use a condom dispenser that is a tasteful addition to its particular restroom. For example, Held says she plans to place a dispenser in Fibber McGee's, a local country-western bar, which will display a black horse bucking its heels and a sign that reads: "Whoa! Be Prepared."
So far, Held says, restaurants and bars that she has approached have been "very receptive to the idea." The machines don't cost the owners a dime, which could also explain their acceptance. The funds to purchase, design and install the machines come from Held's own pocketbook, at an initial cost of $200-$300 per machine. She also plans on maintaining the dispensers herself as part of her charitable mission. The condoms will cost $1 and the money, Held explains, will cover the installation of more machines. (Bar and restaurant owners can reach Held at 526-7762.)
Held says her frustration with the Dallas County Commissioners Court's decision to ban condom and bleach kit distribution that drove her into the condom dispensing business. "If you want something done you have to do it yourself," she says. "We can't sit around and wait for our government to do it for us.
"People are saying abstinence is the answer, but a large population of people won't even educate about condoms [and other forms of birth control]. We need to stop talking about condoms and make them available," she says. "Education is important, but not everyone is being educated because of the debate over abstinence."
Held hopes that eventually the dispensers will be in establishments all over town, especially establishments that attract college students and the "dating crowd."
"You can just walk into these places and see that these are the appropriate places for them to be," she says. "I mean, people are drinking and their judgment is lacking."
In Dallas, the vast majority of AIDS cases are among gay men, as has been the case since the beginning of the epidemic, according to Dallas County epidemiologist Dr. Charles Haley. But there's been a recent increase in two populations specifically: drug users and young people, he says.
In these groups the psychological denial that they can contract AIDS is the biggest problem. "It doesn't have the same newness that it had a decade ago, so people don't meet it with the same alarm and precautions," he says.
While he's more concerned about the high-risk groups of young, gay males between the ages of 16 to 25 and intravenous drug users, Haley says "run of the mill, ordinary young people" also are at risk. The creative condom dispensers are a cheap way to reach this group.
"You have to reach young people wherever young people are," he says. "In Deep Ellum, on Greenville. You can't limit yourself to one or two dozen different locations," he says.
Though Haley supports Held's efforts, he takes a larger view, offering his professional view for stemming the spread of AIDS. "Don't share needles with anyone and pick a lifetime sexual partner," he says, adding, "The latter part is kind of un-American.