Guest blog: Condoms, lube and one simple change

Image courtesy of @drlawson on Twitter.

I’m ridiculously excited to welcome anthropologist and queer activist Dr Jamie Lawson as today’s guest blogger. If you follow him on Twitter you might have noticed he’s been trying to get Sainsbury’s and Boots to make a really simple but important change to the way they sell condoms and lube. And you can help him…

Condoms, lube and one simple change

Not so long ago, reader, I was off on a mission to buy some condoms.

This is a thing I do, from time to time, being the sort of person who takes sex seriously. Condoms weren’t the only thing on my mind that day; I needed lube too. Also eggs, milk and some fresh fruit. Those last things aren’t connected to my sex life (although more power to you if they are connected to yours), but I also take eating seriously so… well, I had a shopping list.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that I needed a bunch of stuff, among them condoms and lube, so I went to my nearest Big Sainsbury’s to get everything at once, because modern life is convenient and you can go to one place to buy everything. Fruit and dairy obtained, I headed towards the bit of Sainsbury’s that has the not-food-stuff in it to find the sex-stuff I needed, and found myself brought up short by the sign that was used to indicate the shelves that I was looking for.

It said “Family Planning”.

I stood and stared at those words for a bit, and let some pretty familiar anger wash over me. I took a picture and tweeted it to Sainsbury’s, asking if we could chat about the sign. I chose some condoms and lube, paid, and left the store.

And so began a small twitter saga, that currently involves me, Boots, Sainsbury’s and a handful of interested (and extremely supportive) viewers.

Before I get into more detail there, let me try to explain, as I have explained a few times to Boots and only once to Sainsbury’s because they stopped talking to me, why I was so angry and, essentially, what the whole deal is.

Here’s the thing: There are various reasons why a person might have sex, among them things like “having fun”, “earning a living”, “a strong desire to have an orgasm”. Sometimes, people might have sex specifically because they want to make a baby, but more often than not, that is not why people have sex. How do I know that? From the fairly straightforward observation that people have more sex than they have babies. Much more regularly, I suspect, people have sex because they want to experience pleasure, and why not? Sex is fun, if you like sex, and if you do like sex, then you need to balance the potential for pleasure against risk. Condoms and lube might help there.

Now, some people find the idea that sex isn’t actually all that connected to reproduction, really, quite hard to accept. It causes them discomfort. If you are one of those people, I invite you to just run with me a little further. Hold on to that feeling, and examine it. What is it about the idea that sex can be disconnected from reproduction that you find uncomfortable? Why does sex need to be reproductive before it’s anything else?

Because let me tell you, there are quite a few of us for whom sex has nothing to do with reproduction at all. I’m a man who has sex with men, for example. No man that I’ve ever had sex with has been capable of becoming pregnant (which is not to say none are), so “family planning” has been pretty low on my list of priorities when I’m thinking about orgasms. LGBTQI+ people of various types and combinations tend, on the whole, to have sex for pleasure, rather than reproduction and, furthermore, when queer people do decide to reproduce, we probably don’t go shopping for condoms.

In fact, if you really start to look at it, if you follow that idea all the way down this particular rabbit hole, then it starts to look as if the fact that LGBTQI+ people have sex for pleasure is what it is about us that society (people en masse) really objects to. You can play the same game with sex workers too, and women in general. Not buying it? Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why is the availability of PrEP on the NHS such a big deal? Why are people debating whether or not sex workers should have rights? Why do people object so strongly to women accessing contraception?

It’s almost as if society is built around the idea that the only sex that really matters is sex that helps (straight, cisgendered) men reproduce. Funny idea that.

Those two little words “Family Planning”, then, connect to a whole matrix of ideas and norms that have been central to the oppression of LGBTQI+ people and women in general for a couple of centuries (at least). They imply that sex is, fundamentally, essentially, about reproduction. That is a political position, and its one that places heterosexual, cisgendered people firmly at the centre of things, excluding everyone else. We call that “heteronormativity”, and it makes queers like me feel sidelined, silenced and then… angry.

Which is why I tweeted Sainsbury’s and, later on, Boots, who also use the “Family Planning” signage. Both companies invited me to DM them with longer comments, so I did (you can see my twitter for those messages). Sainsbury’s thanked me for my input and then shut further conversation down by telling me they couldn’t reveal the outcome of internal decision making. Boots have been engaged in back and forth with me ever since, but have, at time of writing, not quite got their collective head round the central point. I have had a look elsewhere: Asda and Superdrug both group their condoms, lube etc under “health” and “sexual health” respectively, which is better but still perhaps a little medical. I haven’t managed to get to a Big Tesco yet, but I’ll report back when I do. This story is very much still developing.

People on my timeline have, so far, been extremely supportive. I’ve had a lot of people actually thank me for the messages I’ve sent to Sainsburys and Boots, which has been genuinely humbling and a little emotional for me. Only one person, quite early on, felt that telling me I was wasting my time was a good use of theirs.

What is it I am trying to achieve? Despite a lot of advances and progress in recent years, people like me and similar to me are still sidelined by the culture I live in. That culture expresses itself in various ways: in the attitudes of our politicians, in the way sex education is taught, in newspaper headlines, in the actions and words of everyday people, and in signs in supermarkets. Culture reached out and made those things: my fervent hope is that by rewording them where we can, by pushing back where possible, we might start to change culture, and make everyone feel welcome in public spaces.

“If you see a wrong, write it” Ali Smith (Girl Meets Boy)


You can have a word with Boots on Twitter or Facebook

Or chat to Sainsbury’s on Twitter or Facebook

And of course please follow Jamie @drlawson on Twitter, share his tweets and this blog post. 


UPDATE: July 3rd 2017: Apparently Tesco does it too…


  • Chris says:

    Genuine question then: how should shops label the appropriate section? I’m a light-hearted person but I don’t think shops would go for my “Rumpy Pumpy” signage!

    • Girl on the net says:

      “Sexual wellness” works I think – as in the Boots example, where they have ‘sexual wellness’ alongside ‘family planning.’ They could just ditch the FP one. In the post Jamie points out that ‘sexual health’ – if a little medical – is still better than FP.

  • Lurpak says:

    Another thing – are condoms so shoplifted they cant be on the shelves in the convenience supermarkets?
    Ive no embarassment now* , thinking of my 16 year old self.

  • Kitty says:

    As Chris said,

    I’m totally behind the OP but, in my line of work this would be classed as “bringing problems rather than solutions.” With the best will in the world, signage with the word “sex” in the title is never going to happen in $supermarket du jour in the immediate future. In ten years maybe.

    There needs to be some sort of fluffy but professional euphemism they can use that won’t cause Little Timmy to ask questions (not that there’s anything wrong with Timmy asking questions, it should be encouraged, but that flies in the face of our general / generic attitude towards sex at the moment). A supermarket having a “sexual health” aisle will drive prudes to shop somewhere else and that’s bad business. It’s not going to happen.

    It’s a sticky issue (quiet at the back) and I don’t know what the answer is. “Family planning” clearly isn’t fit for purpose, even for heterosexual partners (I have no idea what lube have to do with babies, unless you’re rocking up after nine months with a bottle going “hey, this might help”?)

    Perhaps the answer is just to remove the signage and not single it out, just leave those products innocuously sitting between the Lemsips and the shaving foams and let people work it out? Who knows.

    • Kitty says:

      (apologies for a couple of typos, I’m usually more careful.)

    • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

      If we must be euphemistic and avoid the dreaded s-e-x: what about ‘couples’ products’? (OK, that excludes poly people, but people would get the idea.) Or, I don’t know, ‘personal fulfilment’?

    • Girl on the net says:

      If Superdrug can say ‘sexual wellness ‘, others can too.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    And besides all the above: let’s turn it around for a moment. God help the poor naive person who buys lube and cock rings thinking they’re going to help them have (or not have) a baby…

  • The Quiet One says:

    They have signs for toothpaste and toilet roll, why not just say it like it is and have a sign for condoms and lube? ? :D
    As a single woman occasionally buying my self some items from this section ‘family planning’ has brought a tear to my eye more than once :'(

    • Girl on the net says:

      YES! Condoms and lube. Why not help people find the things by saying what the things are?! We don’t call’bread”edible grain produce’ after all.

  • SweetTheSting says:

    Personal health?
    Intimate wellness/wellbeing?

  • Manda says:

    I’m obviously the odd one out here – but I always took “family planning” in this context to mean “planning NOT to have a family right now” – of course that’s only for condoms and other contraceptives. Putting lube etc. in that catorgory is pretty odd.

  • J N says:

    I prefer “sexual wellness” too, because it’s more broadly accurate. However:

    >Now, some people find the idea that sex isn’t actually all that connected to reproduction, really, quite hard to accept. It causes them discomfort. If you are one of those people, I invite you to just run with me a little further. Hold on to that feeling, and examine it. What is it about the idea that sex can be disconnected from reproduction that you find uncomfortable? Why does sex need to be reproductive before it’s anything else?

    That idea is very hard indeed to accept. Because for a lot of people sex being all that connected to reproduction is basic reality.

    For a very great number of couples, sex and reproduction are firmly entwined INCLUDING when the sex is for the joy of it and not when making babies. We use or used condoms and other methods of contraception to _enable_ (PIV) sex for pleasure. Pleasure in sex is greatly diminished when you’re worrying about getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant. For men who have (PIV) sex with women but want to eventually father children, condoms are the only method under their own control for managing their fertility.

    Do you really not know people who have had accidental pregnancies? You almost certainly do, but since heterosexuals keep the subject private, you might not know who is who, or how common accidental pregnancy is and how central the threat of it is to hetero sexuality when the woman is of reproductive age. I personally used condoms for disease prevention, yes, but much more urgently to avoid pregnancy, for over 25 years. I never engaged in non-PIV sex when I wanted PIV out of fear of disease; I made that choice out of fear of pregnancy. My partner and his then-wife used condoms in a monogamous marriage for ten years, not for disease prevention but to space their children.

    I am a woman who mostly has sex with men, and the incredible lightness and relief of pregnancy being impossible blew my mind when I had sex with women. I had a tubal ligation late in my potentially reproductive life, and it has been indescribably freeing.

    I don’t say this to diminish in any way gay men’s rightful concern for preventing the spread of HIV. I worked at an HIV/AIDS charity for years, and condom outreach was an important part of what the organisation did. I have a pretty good outsider’s sense of what it is like to live and have sex in a community with a high rate of HIV. Yay condoms, PReP, etc! The level of infection, and the level of concern, is much less in the hetero community, but a lower level of concern exists.

    Like I said above, I quite like “sexual wellness” as a category for condoms and lube. Not getting pregnant when you don’t want to is a huge part of that wellness. Acknowledging that fact, even categorising condoms as “family planning”, is definitely heterocentric, but it is based in reality and doesn’t stem from fear of sex for pleasure. Groups that are afraid of sexual pleasure usually oppose condom use, oppose condoms being available, and spread lies about condoms supposedly being highly ineffective. The purpose of condoms is to allow sexual pleasure, sometimes sexual ecstacy, while greatly reducing risks of pregnancy and disease transmission.

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