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At, CVS’ Adams Morgan location, some condoms remain locked.

Three years ago, if you were to walk into a CVS store in search of condoms, you’d face about a 50 percent chance of hitting a brick wall. In 2006, 22 of about 50 CVS stores in the District of Columbia were guarding their condoms under lock and key. The glass-case treatment was reserved for neighborhoods with the greatest need for contraceptives—-the wards with the highest rates of HIV.

Securing a three-pack of Trojans required you to alert an employee who would escort you to the glass condom case, unlock it, wait as you made your selection, then lock the case again behind you. The purchase could be further complicated by wait time, employee attitude toward condoms, and the customer’s level of shame—all factors which could deter a potential buyer from preventing the spread of HIV.

CVS brass, however, was more interested in protecting the condoms from those who refused to buy. The locks were in place to prevent shoplifters from “grabbing a whole bunch of condoms and running out of the store,” says CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis. “The stores that had to keep condoms locked experienced shoplifting to such a degree that our entire inventory was being wiped out,” he says. “There were no longer condoms available for customers to purchase.”

In the fall of 2006, CVS managers around the District began to reevaluate the policy. Twenty-one of the stores have taken contraceptives out of the cases, leaving only one Southeast stalwart with locked-up rubbers. But the managers weren’t unlocking of their own volition: They were just appeasing the activists. 2006 is also the year that students from the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services launched “Save Lives: Free the Condoms.” The campaign, now administered through the Metropolitan Washington Public Health Association, was targeted specifically at CVS’ condom policies. Over the next two years, Save Lives formed a coalition with other public health groups, drummed up media attention, and then, store by store, convinced CVS to free its contraception.

Though locked glass cases are still employed in the pharmacies to protect precious items like soap, toothbrushes, pregnancy tests, and lube, condoms have been upgraded from “locked” to simply “inaccessible.” But with the help of some new technology and a little repression, CVS condoms are still hard to reach in the areas that need them most. According to GW professor Caroline Sparks, who helped launch the campaign, “it is a misapprehension that condoms are now unlocked in Washington.”

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MEET THE “POWER WING.” Post-emancipation, CVS condoms migrated from the glass case to the “power wing.” The wings, in shelf-talk, are displays that feature limited supplies of certain highlighted products like sunglasses, batteries—and now condoms. The wings are designed to encourage a well-intentioned customer to grab one pack of condoms, while preventing shoplifters from making off with armfuls.

Shumaya Ali, one of the original GW students involved in the campaign, says “limited” is the key word in the power wings’ limited supply. “At first we said, well, it’s better than having everything locked up,” says Ali. “But when we did a follow-up survey, we would go to stores and see the shelves empty, or see that many sizes were still not available.”

An empty power wing is on par with a locked case—-it means that customers must grovel with a CVS employee to retrieve condoms from the back. The liberating quality of the new policy depends upon how regularly employees restock the merchandise. Access to stocked shelves also varies by neighborhood. A national CVS watchdog organization, Cure CVS Now, collects user-submitted photos of “good” and “bad” CVS stores, often determined by a neighborhood’s median income and racial makeup. In the photos, a sparse dairy case in Compton is slicked with brown and black liquid, while a Beverly Hills case is fully stocked with fresh milk; a Detroit freezer case is littered with gnawed sunflower seeds, while one in Rochester Hills, Mich., is sanitarily stocked with frozen pizzas.

Jana Baldwin, a current campaign member, says the stocking disparity is no coincidence. “What I personally found, and continue to find on my 17 or so visits to various CVSs around D.C., is that when there are the power wings in the deemed ‘high-theft’ CVS locations, they are not well-stocked,” she says. “Interestingly enough, when I have spoken with managers about why they are not well-stocked, many have said that it is not because there have been condoms stolen, per-se—it is because they want to prevent theft,” she says. “So it doesn’t really make sense.”

According to Ali, the move to power wings didn’t do much to solve the disparity issue, but it did help CVS address another problem: public relations. “It was a small step that showed we were getting through to CVS,” she says. “But it didn’t actually improve anything.”

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MEET THE “CLICK-BOX.”

Though many CVS stores continue to tout the power wing, some have installed a more sophisticated contraption: the click-box. These clear plastic vending machines, which push out condoms at the push of a button, are modeled after CVS’ mechanism for dispensing razors. The device has streamlined the condom-selecting experience down to three simple steps: 1. Push the red button, 2. Pull the handle on the drawer, and 3. Remove the product. Some click-boxes have included an additional recommendation between steps two and three: “Wait for product to dispense.”

At CVS’ Columbia Heights store, some customers have had trouble waiting for the product to dispense. On a Friday night, CVS shift supervisor Dre apologizes for the store’s barely functional click-box, where red buttons rarely manage to push out the correct product. “Sometimes it gets stuck when someone sticks their hand in there before it’s ready,” Dre says. When the machine is broken, Dre is on call to unlock the click-boxes and retrieve the condoms. “It’s crazy, but that stuff gets stolen like crazy,” he explains. “I mean, I think they should be free.”

Even fully functional click-boxes are often monitored by additional store security. Many are situated right in front of the pharmacy counter, where whitecoats can watch your every move—or at least hear it. Pushing the red button triggers a loud grinding noise that makes the experience less than discreet.

Still, most of the time, you don’t have to explicitly inform an employee that you want them “ribbed for her pleasure”—as long as the condom makes it out of its cage. Campaign member Noraine Buttar recalls the consequences of reaching too deeply into a click box: “Someone who was working there walked by and snapped, ‘That’s not how you do that,’” she says. “That sort of reaction means that the process can still be very embarrassing for some people.”

The highly supervised, one-box-at-a-time method proved too liberating for one CVS store in 2007. Many click-boxes are fortified with additional locks, which can swing down over the case at the manager’s discretion. Save Lives: Free the Condoms staged a protest outside of one Petworth CVS when it found that the store’s click-box remained locked during business hours—meaning you needed an employee’s help in order to push the button to pull the handle to remove the product. According to the GW Hatchet, the CVS store unlocked the click-box in the course of the protest, but the store’s manager can’t confirm it: “I couldn’t talk to you about that,” he says. “We’re not allowed to talk to anyone about anything, regardless.”

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MEET THE “GAG ORDER.”

The Petworth manager was just following another CVS post-lock-up strategy. While competitors like Walgreens and Rite-Aid institute company-wide policies ensuring that condoms stay on open shelves, CVS has continued to delegate condom management to a store-by-store basis. CVS’ reluctance to institute companywide policies aside, the pharmacy has instituted at least one order: Employees are not to comment on the issue.

Save Lives: Free the Condoms encountered the gag order midway through its campaign. “We started negotiating at the national level, and while we were in the process of debating with CVS, lots of news releases were coming out about us, supporting our campaign,” says Ali. “Meanwhile, CVS was going behind our back and changing policies store-by-store—starting to put up the clear dispensers and power wings,” she says.

CVS’ strategy—eliminating locks while avoiding a larger discussion—lead to the swift emancipation of dozens of CVS stores. It also left Save Lives: Free the Condoms shut out of the post-lock discussion. “What we want is a comprehensive policy from CVS,” says Ali. “What they did was just take very small steps at the stores where they were pushed hardest, in order to avoid the press.”

Even as it rolled out the new devices, Buttar says, CVS refused to extend the discussion. After sending e-mails and placing phone calls in an attempt to open a dialogue with CVS, its communications team “started blocking our e-mails,” Buttar says. “I could tell what happened—they were coming back immediately with this message saying, “This address no longer accepts e-mails from your address,” Buttar says. Adds Sparks, “Historically, corporations that have consumer problems have two options: They can negotiate in good faith, or they can try to circle the wagon,” she says. “CVS has decided to circle the wagon, thinking that the whole thing would go away. But the whole thing has not gone away.”

At the CVS stores I called, store managers refused to comment on the state of their condoms, pushing queries to the corporate line—where DeAngelis, in turn, wouldn’t comment on individual stores’ practices. The information gap makes things harder for the Save Lives campaign, which must mount new inspections of CVS stores to ensure that the pharmacies aren’t backsliding. In February, Baldwin visited the CVS location at 2646 Naylor Road SE, where she found the click-box locked. Since that precaution can be added and removed instantly, Save Lives: Free the Condoms can never say for sure how many condoms remain locked. When called, that store’s manager wouldn’t discuss power wings or click-boxes, but he would offer one line: “We do not lock our condoms.”

DeAngelis says that the new devices have been effective in decreasing shoplifting—and activist attention. When asked how free-condom activists have responded to power-wing and click-boxes, DeAngelis pleaded ignorance: “I’m not aware that they’ve been in touch recently,” he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery