Robert Gehrke: Utah is afraid to take a risk when it comes to promoting safe sex

(Utah Department of Health via AP) This undated photo provided by the Utah Department of Health shows condoms. Originally part of a program to fight HIV infections in the state, the state-branded condoms were recalled.

It might have been the most effective HIV awareness campaign ever.

Need proof? You already know what I’m talking about and I haven’t even had to mention the hilariously risque slogans on 130,000 condom packages prepared by the Utah Department of Health — slogans like “Explore Utah’s Caves,” “Fillmore, Beaver,” “This is The Place” over a picture of a bed, and, my personal favorite, “Uintah Sex?”

However, in Utah the only thing we like dirty is the air. Or maybe a dirty Diet Coke.

Within hours, Gov. Gary Herbert swooped in like an angry dad, calling the wrappers “lewd” and put the kibosh on the provocative prophylactics.

The state’s pull-out from the condom business made national news, appearing in The Washington Post, CNN, Fox News and NBC News, among others — just not for the reasons intended.

Robert Gehrke

Now the state is scrambling to gather up some 40,000 of the condoms that were distributed. Despite assurances the state was serious about HIV prevention, the “HIV and Me” website that was part of the campaign was “temporarily offline” as of late last week.

How this entire campaign got from its immaculate conception to completion without anyone having second thoughts is a little mind boggling, but the premature climax, as it were, is a big disappointment.

That’s because, jokes and entendre aside, Utah has a serious problem and this could have been part of the solution. Every three days a Utahn is diagnosed with HIV. On top of that, the rate of chlamydia infections has increased by 40% in the past decade and gonorrhea is up a staggering 834% in that same period.

Even in Utah County, where they normally just pass out empty wrappers that say “Save It For Marriage,” there were more reported cases of chlamydia than the flu last year.

“This is a real problem in Utah. Hiding from it isn't going to work,” Ahmer Afroz, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, told my colleague Erin Alberty last week.

But hiding from it — or attempting to just plain hide it — is what we Utahns do best.

Rather than trying something novel, something targeting a young adult demographic (not school kids), something that has been tried in other states and something that just might actually stop the spread of disease or even save a couple lives, we unleash the outrage, and the repercussions are swift and severe.

Maybe, like I said, there is an upside. The buzz the governor’s reaction generated has spread the word about safe sex faster than an STD in Provo. But that’s a small consolation.

And now, assuming the state is able to rustle up the remaining renegade rubbers, what are we supposed to do with them? My guess is they’ll dispose of them with the same fanfare as when they got rid of 275 cases of leftover beer last month. Once it messes up the medical marijuana business (and it is probably just a matter of time), Utah will have spoiled sex, beer and weed.

That’s quite the trifecta.

If the governor thinks printing the packages was a poor use of taxpayer money (it was a federal grant, not state taxpayer money), it certainly isn’t a better use of the money to toss them out, and I can’t imagine they’ll ever show up at a state surplus property sale.

There’s a better solution. Next week, about a million people will descend on the Sundance Film Festival and my bet is that every one of those out-of-staters would want to take one of these home as a little token of Utah’s unique foibles, especially in the aftermath of all of the publicity.

So sell them to tourists for $20 a pop with proceeds going to Adam Spivak’s free HIV clinic at the University of Utah or to the Utah AIDS Foundation. At that price, they could bring in a couple million dollars and provide more than a thousand months’ worth of the HIV-preventative medicine Truvada.

Then, at least these condoms can be put to a good use — even if it’s not the one originally intended.