Redesigning A Condom So Women Will Use It

21 Nov

new female condom

Published: November 13, 2007

Only about 12 million female condoms are delivered each year in poor countries, compared with about 6 billion male condoms. Couples complained that the female version was awkward, unsightly, noisy and slippery — or, as Mitchell Warren, who was one of its earliest champions, now says, ”the yuck factor was a problem.” Many women tried it, but in the end, it was adopted mainly by prostitutes.

Now scientists are trying again. A new design — much the same at one end, different at the other — has been developed, and its makers hope it will succeed where its predecessor failed.

”Over 15 years, there’s been no real competition, no second-generation product,” said Michael J. Free, head of technology at PATH, a nonprofit group based in Seattle that did the redesign. ”There’s no lack of interest, but we’ve been stalled.”

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.”

But for couples who have agreed on condoms, and for sex workers whose clients cooperate, the new design has several advantages.

The redesigned female condom is made of softer, thinner polyurethane to better transmit warmth. It is easier to insert; one end is bunched up as small as a tampon, an improvement on the old design, which resembled the stiff rubber ring of a diaphragm and had to be folded into a figure 8 for insertion.

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.

According to PATH, more than 90 percent of the couples were satisfied with the ease of use and comfort of the new condom, and 98 percent found the sensation of sex to be ”O.K. to very satisfactory.”

Nonetheless, progress is now stalled.

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