On Washington's hoardings, a battle is being fought for the penises of the nation's capital. This fight is brutal – indeed, it makes the scraps on Capitol Hill seem like nothing more than handbag bouts. It is being waged between two Catholic groups.
Trouble started when the pro-choice Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) launched a $500,000 campaign condemning the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to condom use, saying it contributed to HIV deaths. "Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die," one ad read, against the backdrop of grey-haired venerables in purple.
The campaign caused an uproar. There were rebuttals, accusations, counter-accusations, counter-rebuttals. For a city as outwardly polite as Washington, this unholy row was a mini-sensation. Which, of course, was exactly what CFFC wanted.
Things have now moved on. The pro-life American Life League (ALL) has launched its own campaign. This time there are no bishops, but there is a picture of the CFFC president, Frances Kissling, and a script which charmingly claims she is an "excommunicated Catholic whose past includes a stint running abortion mills in Mexico". It adds: "For the past 28 years she's made a living by getting anti-Catholic bigots to fund her shameless attacks on the Catholic church."
Another advert, featuring a picture of a skeleton with an Aids ribbon, claims condoms have a failure rate of 16 per cent. The ALL wanted to run the ads in The Washington Times, but says the paper refused after a threat of legal action from CFFC.
I called Ms Kissling. She seemed an affable woman who admitted her group had threatened action, claiming the ALL ad was inaccurate and libellous. She denied being excommunicated or having worked at abortion clinics in Mexico, where it is illegal. She also claimed statistics from the federally funded Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed condoms had a failure rate of no more than 2 per cent. "The issue is really whether the policies of the Roman Catholic Church contribute to the death of people from Aids," she said.
I then called the ALL. Its spokesman was equally affable. His group was opposed to condom use on theological grounds. Sex was designed not for pleasure but procreation. Furthermore, he said, his condom statistics were also from the CDC.
One last call. This time to the CDC. There was a long delay before anyone got back. I was then asked to call the American Social Health Association, which was able to release the CDC's information. Er, but isn't this your information? "Yes, but the issue is very sensitive, though I would not like to see that in print," said a spokeswoman.
So come on, how effective are condoms? Finally I found this on the CDC website: "Studies have shown condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV transmission. Even with repeated sexual contact, 98-100 per cent of those people who used latex condoms correctly and consistently did not become infected."
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There is another battle being waged in the city, and I'm tempted to say it also involves a male appendage. North-west Washington may be one of the most convivial places in the world to live, but when it comes to finding a parking spot it is a disgrace. A plethora of maddeningly confusing signs mean you risk getting towed away every time you park. Things seem less strict at Camp X-Ray.
Your correspondent's humble set of wheels was towed away for the third time last week, this time for having clocked up too many outstanding tickets. (The last time, the Secret Service got involved after I "borrowed" a diplomats-only spot at the Argentine embassy.) I decided to dispute the tickets and set off to the Stalinesque Parking Enforcement Office headquarters. There, after waiting an hour, I got to see the appeals officer.
The officious young man started by saying it was the city's responsibility to prove my offence, and not for me to prove my innocence. That sounded great until he explained that simply by filling in the ticket correctly, the parking official had done enough to satisfy the burden of proof.
I spluttered and stuttered, expressed outrage and exasperation, but it was pointless. "You can appeal," shrugged the officious male appendage. I guessed he was also theologically opposed to sex being pleasurable.
An hour later and $250 worse off, I was reunited with my car. I am now seeking a condom that protects against parking wardens. I'll even accept a failure rate of 16 per cent.Reuse content