Benedict XVI begins his costly state visit to the UK today. Activists will be using this opportunity to make their voices heard about LGBT equality, abortion rights, child abuse within the church and the Vatican’s powerful and inaccurate stance on condoms.

Pope condoms: Picture: AFP/GETTY

The Vatican’s position on sex education and condoms is outdated and damages international efforts to promote safer sex practices to prevent the spread of HIV, STIs and unintended and unaffordable pregnancies.

The Pope’s well-reported gaffe last year that distributing condoms ‘aggravates’ the HIV/AIDS epidemic was not an isolated incident, but indicative of a core problem with the Vatican’s position on the provision of contraception.

The Vatican uses unsubstantiated claims about the permeability of condoms and promotes abstinence and fidelity as the solution to the epidemic. While it is fair to say that if you don’t have sex, you will be less likely to be exposed to HIV, telling people that condoms do not work prevents them from accessing life-saving information to protect themselves. Anyone who believes that proclaiming fidelity will prevent infection would do well to read Jennifer Hirsch and colleagues case studies of migration, fidelity and HIV risk.

Research exploring the efficacy of abstinence-only education in the US has found that it provides false information and does not reduce unintended pregnancy and STIs. I am not suggesting that HIV prevention can rely solely on condom distribution.

In order to have enjoyable, consenting and safer sexual relationships, people need information about both risk and pleasure, and how to negotiate and use condoms and other forms of contraception to protect themselves.

The Vatican’s position on condoms is damaging as it spreads false information about the fact that condoms are effective – if used correctly and regularly. Research into regular use of condoms for vaginal intercourse has found an 80% reduction in HIV transmission (these studies were not able to examine whether condoms were used correctly). Most of the research looking at whether availability of condoms increases sexual activity finds that availability of condoms does not increase sexual activity.

Pope Benedict XVI represents a damaging view of sexual safety that affects millions of people’s lives as health agencies attempt to provide accurate information and services across the world. We should make a stand during the Pope’s visit in favour of comprehensive, accurate and consistent sex education and provision of adequate contraception globally.

While anti-retroviral drugs certainly help survival for some sufferers of HIV, the 2008 UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic painted a devastating picture in which 2 million people died because of AIDS in 2007, with global health disparities affecting the kind of support those living with HIV are able to access. Such inequality points to a much greater problem faced by the global community.

Protesting about the Pope isn’t enough. We need a fundamental change to a system that exploits those with less for the profit of the few. And that change needs to start at home.