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September 16 was the Global Female Condom Day, an occasion for many to raise awareness of the alternative to the more frequenrly used male condoms. Widely unpopular in Europe, as well as in the US, it seems that the female condom has received more publicity recently, with various campaigns of awareness and distribution in Europe.

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Photo: Gelah (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you ask around, however, it is unlikely that many of your female friends have ever used one. They might have one in a drawer, given out for free at a club or some other fun event, but they have probably never bought one. The object of many unflattering comparisons — a personal favourite is Edvard Munch's The Scream — the female condom remains a mystery for many of us in Europe. But why is it so unpopular? And could it be the revolution it was meant to be when first introduced?

A brief history of the female condom

The internal condom, as it is actually called, was designed by a Danish inventor, Dr. Lasse Hessel, and launched worldwide in 1991. Its common appellation of 'female condom' is actually misleading since it can be used for both vaginal and anal sex.

In the 90s, it had the potential to be a revolution in contraception as the pill had been: it would empower women by giving them more control and could be an answer to the new wave of AIDS terror across the world. But ignorance and negative preconceptions, combined with the product's unappealing appearance and noise it made during sex, led to terrible publicity and media coverage in both Europe and the US where its use never caught up.

The American company that owned the product, the Female Health Company (FHC), could have easily given up on it in the late 90s. But in 1996, over 30,000 women in Zimbabwe signed a petition asking the Ministry of Health to introduce it in the country. It was a huge success there, and led the FHC to make a deal with the World Health Organisation to sell a discounted female condom to more than 80 developing countries. In these countries where it was successful, the female condom fulfilled its role of offering protection against AIDS and a means of contraception that women could control. In fact, the UN considers it one of 13 essential life-saving commodities for women and children since 2012. So it found a substantial market in countries benefitting from health programmes in Asia and Africa.

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Photo: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In Malawi, the female condom is essential for women unable to persuade their partner of using male condoms

However, this further reinforced its negative image in Europe and the US, where it was associated with AIDS-prevention programmes, and due to the increasingly negative social stigma these carried and continue to today. Today's version of the female condom has been upgraded, but its predecessor's bad reputation precedes it. Could a new generation adopt it or is it bound to remain this one contraceptive product people are roughly aware of but have no plan to use on a regular basis?

Drawbacks

Apart from its negative reputation, what are the female condom's genuine drawbacks?

While some liken it to a plastic bag or a windsock before use, others have also called it a "vaginal camping tent".

First of, as the colourful images used to describe it show, its appearance is not very appealing — to say the least. While some liken it to a supermarket plastic bag or windsock before use, others have also called it a "vaginal camping tent." This is an interestingly graphic way of saying that it remains apparent during sex.

The female condom is also not the most straightforward device to use, and can require a few tries to master the technique of putting it on. For women who are used to male condoms, this can seem like an unnecessary hassle out of their comfort zone. With a potential for embarrassment, as anything of the unknown.

Lastly, non negligible is the fact that it is simply not as accessible as traditional condoms. It is not so easy finding places to buy female condoms, and — most importantly — they are about two- to three-times the cost of traditional condoms. So why go out your way to find a product that is more expensive than your go-to condom?

But this would change if they became more popular. It is a vicious circle, as an article from The Atlantic put it: "female condoms are unpopular because they’re not widely discussed or available. And they’re not widely discussed or available because they’re unpopular."

Advantages

The main advantage usually highlighted when advocating for the use of female condoms is that it can be inserted up to eight hours before sex. This allows women to plan in advance, thus preventing the occasional awkward situation of condom shortage and other spontaneous (not to say drunken) oversight. And no need for interruption to put on a condom in the spur of the moment.

In more practical terms, the female condom is just as effective as a traditional one. And in fact, it is more resistant, lessening the risk of breaking. Made of a thin plastic called polyurethane or of a substance called nitrile, its composition does not include latex — which is a big plus for those who are allergic.

When it comes to the experience itself, many opponents insist on the awkwardness of putting it on, and the fact that it remains visible during sex. But it also provides an alternative for men who find condoms uncomfortable, and can even enhance pleasure for both partners. In Zimbabwe, a new word has even been introduced, kaytec-yenza, to describe the "tickle" created by the inner ring rubbing against the penis. And multiple women have reported that it provides more stimulation, helping them orgasm. 

But most importantly, it a form of contraception that it truly decided in agreement between the two partners, with no risk of deception and effectively giving more control to women is certain situations.

Let's give the female condom a chance?

So should we reconsider the female condom and actively promote it?

Choice is key. So why not have as many offers on the table as possible?

Really, there is no right or wrong when it comes to the type of contraception one prefers — as long as it is effective. And the female condom is. But it still has a long way to go before it can be as widespread and easy to use as its male counterpart. If it means investing a lot, I'd rather research focused on developing contraceptive means for men just as effective and widely used as the pill, getting a burden off women. I am not entirely convinced that a new form of immediate and one-off protection will revolutionise our sex lives — it's just another kind of condom. But this is just one person's opinion, and if the female condom can empower some, then it should by all means be easily accessible.

What it comes down to is that choice is key. So why not have as many offers on the table as possible?


Teaser photo:
UNDP Jamaica (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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