At the gynecologist's office here in Taiwan, the nurse calls my number. I go to the counter and, without eye contact, she proceeds to ask me a string of questions: Do you have any allergies? What are you in here for today? Suddenly, her voice falls to a soft whisper and she mutters something completely incomprehensible.
"What? I can't understand you," I say, leaning in.
She scribbles down a word at the bottom of a piece of paper：性
"Xing?" I shake my head, still confused.
She writes it in English.
"Oh! Are you asking me if I'm sexually active?" I say, quite loudly.
She blushes and nods. She looks like she wants to crawl into a hole. I've clearly embarrassed her—a nurse in the gynecologist's office.
In Taiwan, talking bluntly about sex is still widely stigmatized. Ironically, matters of sex have become a national concern because Taiwan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. But it's not that people aren't having sex: Taiwan has one of the highest abortion rates per capita. The low birth rate is causing the island so much anxiety that the government actually gives out subsidies to couples who have babies.
In Taiwan, condoms are the most widely used form of contraception but, unfortunately for women, there's a stigma around buying them. Further, couples don't always use condoms correctly, resulting in a high rate of unwanted pregnancies.
"We had sex education briefly in high school. There were photos of condoms in the books, but that's as much exposure as we got," Jiang, a 22-year-old college student in Taiwan, tells me. "They never showed us how to use it." Jiang and her four friends are sitting next to me in Starbucks; our table is piled high with condoms they've designed. As part of their senior college thesis at the Tainan University of Technology, these women have created and manufactured a conceptual line of condoms, called Oops. The condoms are wrapped in food-inspired packaging: sushi, fruit and vegetable, and dessert.
"We want to make it less embarrassing for people to want condoms, especially women," says Ye Wu, the project lead. "In convenience stores, it's still mostly men who buy them. Woman are very embarrassed about it. We thought that, if we made cute condoms, we could change that. Taiwanese people love cute things."
The sushi condoms are cheekily rolled up in a bamboo mat. Fruit condoms come wrapped in a red mesh plastic—the type of bags that real fruit come in at Taiwan's markets. Cupcake condoms are served in a neat box.
"This way, girls will have an incentive to carry condoms with them," Yayin Xu says. "As women, we need to be responsible for our own protection. We can't rely on men."
At Taiwanese universities, condoms are not easily attainable. "Condoms are usually given out as jokes among our friends," Jiang says. "People rarely have a serious conversation about them."
In the past, school administrations have been known to interfere whenever students started passing out free condoms at freshmen orientations and in student dormitories.
"Our [thesis] advisor was extremely opposed to this idea," Moju Sun adds. "He said it would ruin our reputation." The girls had to do extensive market analysis and research before he could be convinced. They said that emphasizing the condom's ability to prevent sexually transmitted diseases was a huge selling point.
I tell the women my story about my experience at the gynecologists office. They nod in sympathy.
"When my aunt heard about my project, she told me stay quiet about it and not to tell my other family members," Sun says.
"My parents were okay with it but would always start joking whenever they saw our products," Wu says. "They were clearly very uncomfortable."
"We don't talk about sex openly here in Taiwan," Jiang says. "It's changing, but it's still a source of awkwardness."
While the girls hope to turn their graduation project to a functional business model, they don't have any real plans for it yet. This week, they're too busy preparing for graduation.
"Hopefully we can launch Oops into the international market as well," Xu says.
Ultimately, they hope that the food-inspired packaging will motivate more women to pick up condoms for themselves. "After all, the most important things in life are sex and food," Sun says. "We need sex, and Taiwanese people really like to eat. Like food, condoms are a necessity."