Cue the baggy noise.
It's a pouch inserted into the vagina that can cost up to $4 a pop. How big can it get?
First introduced in the United States in the early '90s, the female condom was hyped as a game changer, something that would potentially defeat male latex condoms as the number one contender in sexual health. But as you and I know, female condoms never got their day. Today, New Zealand's Minister of Health finally approved use of the female condom model FC2 within the country, which women's rights agencies have been lobbying for since 2011 in an effort to reacquaint the world with the lost female condom.
Despite the widespread availability of female condoms in pharmacies, the International Business Times reports that female condom sales continue to be at a stalemate. "International donors distributed 140 male condoms for each female condom they give. [There are] several barriers to the underuse of female condoms. One is the cost with male condoms costing only $0.03 compared to the female condom at $0.60 each." Besides the higher costs, polyurethane and synthetic nitrile condoms have been subjected to a lot of gossip, especially from women and men who haven't necessarily used them.
The laundry list of complaints about female condom includes that they reduce the feeling of sex, they can easily slip out of the vagina or anus, and they always makes that tell-tale baggy sound — one that the new model FC2's designers have been working furiously to silence. Female condoms are generally considered to be hard to use and not as comfortable to wear for women. As the Planned Parenthood site suggests, "With a little practice, female condoms become easy to use." But in a sexual climate of spontaneous hookups, hormonal contraceptives, and pulling out, even a little practice could seem like a daunting pre-req. People don't want school; they want sex.
Which is where the recent marketing of the pleasure of the female condom comes in. The FC2 condom claims that inserting it into the vagina is in itself a form of sex play, that the inner ring squeezes a penis tightly, and the outer ring of the condom rubs against the clitoris during sex. The latest models of the female condom including the FC2, the silicone Origami (expected in late 2015), and the latex Cupid Limited (in clinical trials) are all launching campaigns centered around the ease, pleasure, and power a woman experiences by using the femidom. "Women are in charge," is the ideal behind the female condom, and for women in both developed and developing worlds, that kind of sexual power has a novel appeal.
The gendered way we think about protecting sex is also built into our natural reactions (and attendant repulsion) to female condoms. "Women get the pills, men get the condoms" is our cultural narrative. “We live in a very male-dominated penetration society. It is the man's job to deliver pleasure, it's the man's job to organize protection. Until we shift this attitude, women are not going to realize that they have the right to take control of safe sex measure," sexologist Nikki Goldstein told the Sydney Morning Herald.
In addition to that unique "female control," some of the other benefits of the female condom include that they can be used by those with latex allergies, they can be used with water and oil-based lubricants, they conduct heat for a more natural sensation, they can be used for anal, they protect against STIs, there's no hormones involved, and they stay in place regardless of an erection. Compare that to the drawbacks of some of the other known contraceptives available — the NuvaRing, the shot, and the pill — and the female condom doesn't seem that much worse an option, only a different one.
It's that unavoidable difference — the way the female condom looks hanging out of a vagina, the way it sounds weird, and the fact that couples hardly talk about it — that mean it probably won't ever be as big as regular rubbers, unless female condoms get even more enticing makeovers. Even the clunky, tedious, and gendered name of the female condom is holding it back. And according to Planned Parenthood, if women always use the female condom correctly, 5 out of 100 will become pregnant each year (compared to the 2 out of 100 using male condoms perfectly). While that's just a three percent statistical difference, it's just another unattractive chip the female condom will continue to have stacked against its resurgence.
Image via Origami Condoms.