CNN had a really fascinating article on Monday about the female condom, which has never seemed to catch on. In fact, they seem downright unpopular; as the author, Madison Park, observes, they’ve been called “noisy, unwieldy, and like a plastic bag.” Since they were approved back in 1993, a range of factors from their expense (they cost about $4 each, as opposed to male latex condoms, which range from around $0.50 to $1) to simple unfamiliarity have kept the female condom from achieving anywhere near the popularity of their male counterpart. But major health campaigns in New York, Chicago and Washington, DC are trying to change that.
Ximena Ramirez wrote a piece a few months ago about the DC campaign, where female condoms were actually given away for free all over the city. Other health campaigns have begun training sessions on how to use them, focusing their endeavors around a new version of the female condom, which was approved by the FDA in 2009. This new contraceptive looks like a “long sheath with two soft rings at each end. One ring must be pushed with a finger into the vagina, much like a tampon. The other ring remains outside the body.” It’s made with non-latex materials and, activsts claim, is nowhere near as difficult to insert as some people fear.
“Some male partners like the extra movement they get” with a female condom, Carol Queen, the legendary sex-positive activist. But the condom could also get twisted, she explained. Queen, who is a staff sexologist at Good Vibrations in California, says that sales of female condoms have been up in the past few years.
Interestingly, there has been a similar push for female condoms in India, also as a way to curb the spread of HIV in women. Officials claim that the pilot program, which provided inexpensive female condoms to sex workers in various provinces, showed their consistent use. Proponents cited the fact that the female condom, as the only female-initiated barrier method, protected women, particularly sex workers, whose partners refused to use a condom.
It’s undeniable that having one more option for female health and safety during sex is a good thing. And it does seem odd that their male counterpart is so popular, while the birth control pill serves as the major contraceptive for women, despite the fact that it does not protect against STIs and, without insurance, can be significantly more expensive.
The question is whether we can be educated to recognize the female condom as a viable option – and to get over our discomfort with its unfamiliarity. I hope we can, but I think an important step will be for the condoms to drop in price. Sadly, one of the most important ways for them to compete will be economically. But it’s a crucial question of equity – women should have a barrier method available to them, and along with increased education about its merits, the contraceptive itself should be both affordable and accessible.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.