In the news this week, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade is considering restrictions on the import of foreign-made condoms, along with a slew of other medical goods. Naturally, because demographic crisis is never far from Russian policymakers’ minds, jokes (…I hope) have already been made about how these restrictions will improve the birth rate. One jokester (…probably not) is the always-opinionated Gennady Onishchenko, former head “sanitary doctor” of the Russian Federation, who thinks a shortage of condoms will make people choose their partners more carefully and have more children.
Okay. Guys. The Russian birth rate is low because Russians are having the number of children they want and can afford to have. It cannot easily be raised by tricking women into getting pregnant. But as ridiculous as restricting condom access is as a pro-natalist policy, this flap did get me wondering how big a role condoms play in the Russian contraceptive scene, and what share of them are imported.
I don’t intend to make a habit of citing LifeNews, but this conversation with a Moscow sex shop owner is actually quite interesting. The shop owner, Yesenia Shamonina, claims that there is only one Russian factory that produces condoms, and they’re mostly cheap novelty varieties. (I leave more specific interpretation of her phrasing, “the sort with mustaches and little balls on them,” to the reader.) She estimates that production would have to increase a hundredfold to compensate for a ban on imports, and reports that people are already visiting her store to stock up on Trojans in bulk.
In the relentless pursuit of knowledge, I looked up the condoms I remember most vividly from my time spent in Russian supermarket checkout lines circa 2007 – “Hussar” brand. (Hard to forget the lady in the circus monkey suit.) There’s not much that’s more (tsarist) Russian than a dashing young hussar, but according to the website condomo.ru, this brand is owned by a UK company called Contex, produced in Thailand and South Korea, and packaged in Russia. No dice under the potential ban, I think.
So it sounds like the Russian condom market might be in trouble. How bad would that be? As it turns out, condoms are actually a somewhat popular choice among Russian contraceptive users. According to the UN, in 2011, a full 25% of Russian couples 15 and older (married or cohabiting) used condoms for their contraceptive needs. This is higher than anywhere else in Europe or the former Soviet Union in the last ten years, except the UK, where the figure is 27%. (The figure for the US is 11.6%.) I don’t have data on this, but I would guess that among Russians who are not in couples but are having sex and using contraceptives, condoms are an even more popular choice. (This is true in the US, where condoms are the most commonly used method for teenage contraceptive-users.) A lot of people will have a hard time using their method of choice if this ban happens.
But the concept of unmet need for contraceptives is important here. Unmet need is a measure of sexually active women who wish to avoid pregnancy but are not currently using a contraceptive method. It’s an important indicator if you’re studying a country or region’s fertility, and it’s also what would actually need to rise in order for Russia’s birth rate to change (at least in the trick-the-women way that Russian policymakers seem to be dreaming of – there are, at least in theory, more humane ways to raise a birth rate).
It’s not entirely impossible that a condom shortage would increase unmet need, but in a country like Russia, it seems unlikely. The population is highly educated and thus likely to know its other options; oral contraceptives are available over the counter; and – perhaps most importantly – abortion is safe, legal despite increasing restrictions, and more frequently accessed than anywhere else in the world. It seems more likely that a condom shortage would increase use of other contraceptives and abortion than the birth rate.