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Designing A Better Female Condom

Female condoms are much reviled, but they shouldn't be. They've come a long way.

Designing A Better Female Condom

[Image: Female condoms via Shutterstock]

The female condom. In the already somewhat icky seeming world of prophylactics, no three words conjure up quite the same degree of embarrassment and censure. Since the debut of the female condom in 1993, it has been described as a jellyfish, a windsock, a colostomy bag, and even a contraption used to punish fallen virgins in the Dark Ages. Even many self-proclaimed feminists hate them. Jezebel published an article about female condoms called "Stop Trying To Make Female Condoms Happen" that, with the utmost enlightenment, described women who wear female condoms as "[lining] their vaginas like a waste paper basket." "Female condoms are just ew," the article helpfully concluded.

But as this fantastic article written by Emily Anthes of the BBC notes, the female condom had gotten a bad—excuse the pun—rap. In fact, much of the criticism of female condoms is based on inherently classist worldviews that take as a given that women have control over the course of the sex act. But that's not the case in many places, particularly in the third world. Can design save the female condom?

While a woman in America or Europe may consider a female condom an inferior choice to a regular johnny, such an opinion takes it for granted that one's sexual partner would consent to wear a condom to begin with. Yet in the developing world—particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where 60% of new HIV diagnoses have been made by women, and where rape (often inside of marriages) is a matter of course—no such assumption can be made. What makes the female condom such an incredible invention is that it gives women a non-verbal method of protecting themselves from sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.

Luckily, it appears that design innovations are set to revolutionize the female condom, even in the developed world. One of the major reasons that female condoms have a stigma is the way they ship, which is fully unrolled; hence, the "jellyfish" descriptions of the product. They are also difficult to insert, and some women find them painful once inside. Early versions of female condoms were also prone to making noises during intercourse that were less lubricated than lugubrious: no one wants to hear squeaking and rustling during sex.

Over the last 15 years, numerous companies have been tackling these problems, and trying to invent a better female condom. While early female condoms were made of polyurethane, newer female condoms are made of nitrile, which eliminates much of the noise of wearing a female condom and also makes them significantly cheaper. And there's even more ingenuity happening in female condom design. Consider, for example, the Panty Condom, which features a condom pouch affixed to a pair of reusable panties that feature an opening over the vagina. Before sex, the condom can be pushed into the vagina, even by penis, without a woman having to take off her underwear.

Meanwhile, two American companies have been tackling the application and deployment problems. Path, a non-profit based in Seattle, has been working on a redesign of the female condom since 1998. After more than 300 prototypes, the organization has developed the Woman's Condom, which is inserted like a tampon with an applicator that dissolves within 60 seconds when coming into contact with the moisture of the vagina. It should be available in the U.S. this year. Meanwhile, Origami Condoms in California has developed a silicone female condom that unfolds like an accordion as it's pushed into the vagina. It is currently seeking regulatory approval.

Such innovations could go a long way to helping the female condom lose its stigma. In fact, according to studies by Path, 98% of women and an amazing 100% of men said that they found using the company's Woman's Condom to be sexually pleasurable. In other words, once you get past the opprobrium, female condoms, when properly used, don't diminish sexual pleasure any more than male condoms. The main issues with female condoms are ones of perception and application. Design is in the process of solving the latter; can society change its mind on the former?

Read the BBC's full report on female condom design here.