Stiff Competition injects humor and political commentary into safe sex packaging design | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stiff Competition injects humor and political commentary into safe sex packaging design

click to enlarge End Dis-ease by Steve Mendelson - STEVE MENDELSON
Steve Mendelson
End Dis-ease by Steve Mendelson

When scanning the condom section at a drug store, what stands out? Besides the emblematic Trojan horse, most of the small, square boxes — or, for those looking to stock up, larger rectangular ones — are a blur of sexy blacks, purples, and For Her Pleasure pinks. 

But Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates (PPPA) recognizes the potential of condom packaging as a platform to uplift the conversation around safe sex and raise awareness about the kinds of products available. That’s why the organization, which works to advance Planned Parenthood’s mission of defending sexual health care and reproductive rights across the state, recently launched Stiff Competition: Hindsight is 2020, a juried contest seeking the most creative packaging designs for condoms and dental dams.

Sara Dixon, who serves as the public relations manager for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and as the region’s action council coordinator for PPPA and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PAC), says Stiff Competition garnered over 20 designs from local designers and artists. 

“We got a wonderful range, honestly,” she says, mentioning paintings, sketches, collages, and cartoons. 

On Fri., Feb. 7, the chosen works will go on display for an exhibition at HIP at the Flashlight Factory, with the winning design showcased on its own packaging. 

Stiff Competition originally launched 20 years ago when, as Dixon puts it, computer arts were becoming more accessible and “it was this really interesting art-form that we could use to talk about sexual education.” Though it fell to the wayside, she says PPPA wanted to bring the contest back as a way to see what people could do with new design technology. 

What they received included the winner, a dental dam design Dixon describes as both “funny” and “risqué,” a beautiful painting of “a bunch of sperm,” and a lot of “very anti-Trump” images. 

Dixon expresses surprise at the level of support the tongue-in-cheek contest received, including from the judging panel. Besides sarah huny young of Darkness is Spreading and True T Pgh co-executive director, Duane Binion (Naheen), the panel also attracted Richard Parsakian, owner of the Eons vintage clothing store in Shadyside, and, in a more unexpected turn, former Carnegie International curator Ingrid Schaffner.

 “We have someone who curated the Carnegie International now judging our local condom design competition,” says Dixon. “It blew my mind.”

In addition to being an offbeat showcase for local artists, designers, and crafters, Dixon sees Stiff Competition as a fun way to reinvigorate the conversation around safe sex and the need for sexual education, the latter of which came up when she noticed how many people had no understanding of dental dams, protective sheets used for non-penetrative sex.

Dixon partly attributes ignorance about dental dams to the lack of attractive packaging for female-oriented products. (Dental dams are most commonly used as a barrier during vaginal oral sex, as well as anal). 

click to enlarge Diddle by Bryan Postlewait - BRYAN POSTLEWAIT
Bryan Postlewait
Diddle by Bryan Postlewait

“If you look at [condom packaging], they have a lot of really funny, interesting stuff, which is great because they’re so popular,” says Dixon. “You are hard-pressed to find funny or interesting dental dam packing.”

She believes not shedding more light on dental dams could have serious consequences.

“Just because you’re not having penetrative sex doesn’t mean you can’t get an STD,” says Dixon. “I would like to see more awareness around that product and its use.”

The Stiff Competition exhibition will also serve as a fundraiser for PPPA and PAC with works going up for sale during a silent auction. Dixon says any money raised will go toward helping Planned Parenthood’s mission, especially during an election year when many advocates see the Trump administration as a threat to healthcare and reproductive rights, especially legal abortion.

“It’s vital in this time to really pay attention and be aware of organizations like [Planned Parenthood] that are fighting for your rights and doing the best they can,” she says. 

Dixon believes that by working at the state level, PPPA can make a difference by endorsing pro-sexual health candidates and policies. She cites how PPPA-approved state Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) was among those sponsoring Pennsylvania House Bill 1586 pushing for “age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education to all grade levels.” (Current Pennsylvania law does not require sex education in schools.)

 “We’re coming into a political year, so it’s really important people know that groups they support have political movements as well, and you can help support them, too,” says Dixon.

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