“This little object is very much a reflection of the human spirit,” says Aine Collier, author of The Humble Little Condom: A History ($19, Prometheus Books). Indeed, she adds, few people realize that condoms were used by the ancient Egyptians, who made them out of animal intestines.

Collier tracks the condom through the Middle Ages and the time of Columbus, when rampant syphilis forced condoms into double duty—preventing both pregnancy and disease. In today’s age of HIV/AIDS, she charts how they jumped from drugstores to Wal-Mart, remaining the best protection for serodiscordant sexual partners. But their effectiveness, Collier insists, depends on society’s willingness to embrace them.

“I think that the acceptance of the condom is still very much up in the air and is very culturally bound,” she says. “People are still deeply embarrassed about references to sexuality. And given the fact that the AIDS rates just keep climbing, this baby’s the answer. We need to embrace it and educate, educate, educate.”

And who are you calling little?