Imagine a product for women that prevents HIV-AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy. That a woman can pick up at the drugstore, no prescription needed, and insert up to eight hours before intercourse.
Impossible? Not at all. It’s called the female condom, or FC1, a soft, transparent sheath that a woman inserts into her vagina. It is available at health clinics and some doctors’ offices, as well as some drugstores and drugstore websites.*
You would think that girls and women would be stockpiling it. In fact they are in Africa, where last year, 45 million were distributed. Not so, however, in the U.S., where female condoms make up only a tiny percentage of contraception sales.
Why the lack of interest here? FC developer Mary Ann Leeper suspects part of the reason is that American men are more likely than African men to use condoms – thus women in the U.S. aren’t as likely as African women to think they’re at risk of contracting an STI or getting pregnant.
Also, until now, the cost of a female condom, formerly anywhere from $2 to $5, was considerably higher than the cost of the male condom. The second generation female condom (FC2), to be distributed nationwide over the next few months, is considerably cheaper.
I suspect that the biggest reason why more FCs aren’t sold is that – like the women who could use them – those who sell them don’t know much about them. I recently interviewed female university students for a podcast on the female condom and one woman seemed to speak for the group when she said, “I had great sex ed. all through high school and I was never really told a lot about it and I don’t think my mom knows a lot about it and it’s just not something that people know a lot about…If we were educated it might be more popular…”
That’s what Leeper and others at The Female Health Company, which makes the female condom, are hoping as they begin a major push this fall to teach health professionals about its possibilities in cities such as Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. The company already provides technical support to public health programs in other countries, which helps account for its success overseas.
“For more than 20 years, we have believed…in the principle of doing well by doing good,” Leeper says. This past July, Fortune magazine rated the company first among emerging healthcare companies.
*Note: An alternative to the FC1/2, the VA w.o.w. Condom Feminine (“VA” for short) is available in a number of countries, but has not yet been approved by the United States FDA.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Laura Sessions Stepp is Senior Media Fellow at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, where she hosts a podcast for The Campaign’s new website, sexreally.com. SexReally seeks to foster conversations about relationships and sex while addressing gaps in people’s knowledge about fertility and contraceptive use through polling, videos, and other content.
For more about Mary Ann Leeper and the female condom, visit www.sexreally.com.
By Laura Sessions Stepp