New female condom not set to take off

// 13 November 2007

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The female condom has never caught on. It didn’t in the United States. It didn’t when it was distributed in third world countries during the 1990s, despite hopes that it would help control the spread of AIDS. It didn’t. So, this would suggest that the concept is redundant, wouldn’t it? There are other methods of contraception equally as effective and probably more comfortable than inserting layers and layers of latex into your vagina whenever you’re feeling in the mood, creating some sort of fanny sling-shot. The coil, oral contraception (by which I mean the pill, not enforcing cunninlingus as a substitute for penetration, although ask your partner about this one), contraceptive injections and implants. These methods prevent pregnancy. But what about STDs you cry? There’s a wealth of barrier forms: the diaphragm, the cerivcal cap, the sponge and the Lea contraceptive (this works like the cervical cap and the diaphragm.) So there are options. Plus, men CAN wear condoms despite the reluctance of many to rubber up. Why then is more money being invested in developing something that us ladies are not going to use anyway?

The New York Times published a report today regarding the recent redesign of the female condom by the non-profit organisation PATH, which concentrates on proposing methods to improve global health.

It is hoped that developing the female condom will make it a more desirable form of contraception in developing countries, although what cannot be done with a few sketches is to change the social stigma that is attached to the use of the female condom:

“However, the new design does not overcome the glaring drawback that doomed the first to be a niche product: it cannot be used secretly. For that reason, married women, now one of the highest risk groups for AIDS in poor countries, rarely use it.

‘I don’t want my husband to know that I am wearing a condom,’ said Lois B. Chingandu, the director of SAfaids, an anti-AIDS organization in Zimbabwe.

‘Condoms are almost undiscussable within a marriage’ in Africa, she added. ‘It is something associated with casual sex. If a wife uses a condom, the message is that you have been unfaithful. If she even initiates the discussion, it tips the power scale. Men resist quite a lot, and it can result in violence.'”

Women aren’t going to be able to use them because of cultural prejudice, and so regardless of the claims that they are “made of softer, thinner polyurethane to better transmit warmth” and are also “easier to insert,” resembling a tampon at one end, who is going to benefit? The social stigma attached to this form of contraception emanates from the fact that “mainly prostitutes” use this as protection, and “respectable” women have to distance themselves from any connection with these scarlet women, in what are essentially still strong patriarchies. The issue of unfair social judgement of female sex workers aside, if these women are already using female condoms to prevent the spread of infection, then regardless of the new aerodynamic ride one is likely to get when using the new product, why develop it if it is already being effectively used? Would the money not be better invested in the development of sexual health services, to educate people in developing countries about taking responsibility, rather than concentrating on a method of contraception that is not only frowned upon, but it already being used by those who are going to use it?

PATH is now seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so that the product can be retailed in the United States. This would make endorsement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) easier to achieve. What is interesting is the emphasis placed in the article on this as a form of contraception that makes intercourse completely pleasurable, but not from a female perspective. From couples (subtext being from a male perspective):

“During sex, the new female condom also moves more like a vagina than the old design did, according to couples in Seattle, Thailand, Mexico and South Africa who tested a series of prototypes, said Joanie Robertson, project manager for the condom at PATH. The old design hung passively from the rubber ring, which could shift around and sometimes hurt; the new design has dots of adhesive foam that adhere to the vaginal walls, expanding with them during arousal.”

Amending the old design so that it can move and expand with the female body as a woman experiences arousal is a good thing. But I get the sense from the first sentence that a lot of emphasis was placed on how pleasurable this would be for a male partner during coitus. I am not against both partners experiencing pleasure during intercourse, but I do wonder why this product is being developed, placing emphasis on how sex is still enjoyable and the fanny still feels like a fanny, when, as I said at the outset MEN CAN WEAR CONDOMS.

OK, we want to take responsibility for our own sexual health, but there are a wealth of options available to us. For men (apart from abstinence, and no-one wants that), the condom is the only form of contraception readily available, and having to roll a thin layer of latex over your cock prior to sex is surely less intrusive than shuving some tampon-like creation inside you? Perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on the development of other forms of contraception that can be adopted by men, especially in third world countries where women are in the impossible situation of being expected to take responsibility while at the same time being branded a whore and a slut for doing so.

Personally, I can’t see this taking off in the US (why would it?it hasn’t before), and if it does venture across the pond I doubt women are going to be swooping down on pharmacies in their masses to stock up. Ah well, maybe when the venture fails all the female rubbers can be melted down and fashioned into the shape of a big, giant phallus that we can all worship. It’d keep us free from pregnancy, STDs and social judgement, while at the same time ensuring that we know our place as subservient to the needs of the almighty ‘cock.’ What more does any woman want? Sigh…

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