Is the female condom making a Comeback?
by FFE News Staff
When the first female condom came out, it was jokingly called by many names like plastic bag and hot air balloon. But Chartex president Mary Ann Leeper still fails to see the joke 20 years after the company launched FC1.
FC1 created an atmosphere of curiosity and anticipation. A single negative article in an American women’s magazine has since affected how the public view female condom. Leeper said ‘That story was the pivotal story that became like a domino effect. It was a shock to me, to tell you the truth. Why would you make fun of a product that was going to help young women stay healthy, that was going to protect them from sexually transmitted infections as well as unintended pregnancy?’
It was true that FC1 had a design flaw, making it a bit noisy during sex. But there were still communities which saw past the flaw and toward the need. When Chartex’ successor Female Health Company thought about closing in 1995, a woman from Zimbabwe called saying 30,000 women demanded to bring the female condom in the country.
This started a partnership which brought the condom to many parts of the world.
FC1’s successor, the FC2, which overcame the design flaw, has been a running success for 8 years today. It is available in 138 countries and the company was able to double its sales by 2007. The company had four major customers: the US aid agency (USAID), the UN and Brazil and South Africa’s health ministries.
Public health officials have seen the advantages of the female condom, including giving women power over ‘condom negotiation’ with men. They added that since female condoms can be inserted hours beforehand, interruptions are minimal during sex. The condoms also need not be removed immediately.
But the best advantage of female condoms is that they offer a better protection against sexually-transmitted infections as the vulva is kept covered by the condom.
Both men and women have also expressed satisfaction in the use of female condoms. A 2011 survey revealed that 86% of women wanted to use the method again and 95% said they would recommend it to friends. Saskia Husken of the Universal Access to Female Condom Joint Programme (UAFC) added that ‘Many people report that female condoms heighten sexual pleasure.’ The large ring that remains outside of the condom is also stimulating to women, and men found them less tight than male condoms.
In Africa, where female condoms come free in clinics, the flexible ring of the condom has also been used as a bangle that announces a woman’s availability. Marion Stevens of the female health campaigning body Wish Associates said ‘If you are [romantically] available you have a new bangle on. If you are in a long-term relationship your bangle is old and faded.’
However, many women still find issue with the look of the female condom. Meyiwa Ede of the Society of Family Health in Nigeria said women may still be surprised when they catch their first glimpse of the condom. She said ‘They look at it and say “OK — are you saying I have to put that in myself?”’ To assist first time users, Ede and her team use a mannequin to show how the condom is inserted. Soon, it will become second nature for women.
Mags Beksinska of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa clarified that ‘[a female condom has] the same length as a male condom so if you hold the two together open, they’re not that different.’ Beksinska is the lead author of a study on the three available models of female condom: the Woman’s Condom (China), Cupid (India, South Africa and Brazil) and the VA Wow. The study published in the Lancet is hoped to help the condom gain wider acceptance globally.
At present, a number of companies are also breaking into the market, offering more radical female condom designs. One of these is the Origami, soon to be introduced in American markets. The condom is designed by Danny Resnic, who suffers from HIV after using a broken condom in 1993. He said he had studied the FC1 jokes closely to design a female condom.
‘There’s a reason it looks like a plastic bag — it is a plastic bag. It’s putting a round peg into a different-shaped hole.’ His condom is oval-shaped and mirrors the female anatomy. The outer ring also serves to sit against the labia rather than dangle as other condoms do.
Resnic said ‘It’s an intimate product and a shared experience, for two people. So our female condom is intended to be attractive for both men and women.’ Resnic has also added a new dimension to his condom: he designed it using silicon so that it can be reused after washing.
Despite 20 years in the market and covering only 0.19% of global condom trade, entrepreneurs are still confident in their venture. Leeper confessed she realised that female condoms will have a long way to go before being accepted. She recalled being contacted by a man from Tampax, who said it took decades before women accepted tampons. Leeper said ‘He showed me the learning curve.’