Why you should care
Female condoms could give women more control over their sexual health…but first, they have to want to use them.
Even by Greek mythology standards, King Minos and Pasiphae were in a weird spot: As revenge for his cheating, she’d cast a spell that filled his semen with scorpions and serpents. But now she wanted to get pregnant and couldn’t. The solution? A goat’s bladder inserted into the vagina, which trapped the scorpions and cleared the way for the couple to later conceive.
That’s right: Ancient Greece was down with female condoms.
These days the technology is a long way from goat bladders. The version currently for sale in the U.S., the FC2, is a 6.5-inch nitrile sheath with a flexible ring at each end, one of which fits over the labia. It’s a more comfortable and responsive design than earlier modern iterations, and together with new styles being developed around the world, it is a cause célèbre of global health advocates. It’s easy to see why:
- The female condom is the only woman-initiated method that protects against both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections like HIV. This is crucial in parts of the world where women don’t have as much negotiating power in sexual relationships — they don’t have to rely on men to take action. (The female condom may even offer extra protection on the STI front by covering part of the external genitalia.)
- It can be inserted hours before sex, so there’s no need to stop the proceedings to suit up. And unlike a male condom, it’s not erection-dependent.
The potential lifesaving impact of female condoms is most apparent in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV and AIDS affect more women than men and the incidence of rape is high. But even there female condoms are vastly overshadowed by their male counterparts. In 2012, aid groups sent 25.7 million female condoms to the region, according to the UNFPA, compared with billions of male condoms.
Worldwide, female condoms make up only 1.6 percent of total condom distribution.
Outside of the developing world, people who are aware of female condoms at all tend to think of them as clinical curiosities. An informal survey of sex-savvy women drew responses mostly ranging from “Weird” and “Why?” to “Do they work?”, with only a few experienced voices declaring them “roomy” and “different.” We have to wonder: Would a radical image makeover help bring female condoms more into the mainstream? If this were a tanking household product, what would corporate America do?
Different translations of the Minos myth vary in who wore the goat bladder and why (in one, gal-pal Procris designs it so she can have an affair with Minos), but whatever the details, the tale is seen as an important clue to the role condoms played in ancient societies.
1. Let’s start with the name(s). FC2, the Woman’s Condom, Phoenurse: hardly the stuff of erotic whispers. We can kind of get behind VA W.o.W. (a brand available in South Africa and some other countries), because even if it does stand for “Venus Age: Worn of Women,” at least it’s trying. Origami (still in clinical trials) has some potential for intrigue. Cupid (made in India): getting warmer. But surely we could find a generic name for all female condoms that makes them sound more appealing and less bluntly utilitarian — a word people would want to say. (“Condom” itself is not exactly foxy, but it’s been in the sexual lexicon for hundreds of years — long enough to rack up dozens of playful nicknames.)
2. Make men want them too. Aid workers already know that male buy-in is a key part of the equation. Focus on the fact that female condoms are less physically constricting, that they can be liberating and — thanks to the external ring — more stimulating for both parties. In fact, maybe we need to take “female” out of the name altogether — this is a condom for everyone. It’s even used for man-on-man sex, not an FDA-sanctioned application but one that is often encouraged by health workers (with the alternate moniker “internal condom”).
3. Pump up the style. Most online photos make female condoms look like the bag that was tossed into your driveway with last Sunday’s paper — crumpled, loose, vaguely damp. Strong photo styling and packaging could do wonders.
4. Recast them as a luxury item. One of the biggest downsides of the FC2 is its price — it retails for $2-4 a pop, significantly more than male condoms. But what if that higher price point were seen as a mark of prestige? You can buy regular condoms anytime, but female condoms are a treat. Let’s make them aspirational, get them name-dropped in pop and hip-hop songs.
5. Get people talking. If nothing else, this. Female condoms may not be the top choice for everyone, but people need to know that they are a choice. And they need to know how to use them — the female-condom equivalent of the banana sex-ed demo — to cut down on any anxiety about the unknown. The more women hear about friends’ experiences with female condoms, the more likely they are to try them, even if their friends don’t give rave reviews. So any step that helps normalize them is a win.
Obviously, this is just a sidebar to a much larger conversation about making all forms of protection more visible, available and effective around the world.
But what do you think, OZYans? What should we call the female condom, and what would encourage more people to take the plunge?