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Learning to Love the Female Condom

When it comes to creating condoms, the folks who make 'em for men have it easy. Male condoms are the essence of simplicity and require little in the way of engineering -- or imagination.

By contrast, when the people at The Female Health Company in Chicago set out to make a female condom, they faced a steep learning curve, technical challenges and, perhaps most daunting of all, a deafening lack of enthusiasm among the very women the product was meant to protect.

The company's first product, the FC (for female condom), was launched in 1994 and landed like a lead balloon among consumers, who complained that it was too pricey, that its feel wasn't conducive to satisfying sex and that, of all things, it made too much noise. That product's still on the market, retailing for about $17 for a package of 5. Compare that to the cost of a pack of Trojans -- around $10 for a dozen -- and you begin to understand why the FC hasn't caught on in a big way. (According to this FDA chart, female condoms are slightly less effective than male condoms at preventing pregnancy when each is used impeccably.)

(Courtesy of The Female Health Company)

In March, though, the company received FDA approval (the first ever for a condom, according to Female Health Company vice president Jack Weissman, who says male condoms were "grandfathered" in by the FDA) for a new and improved condom, the FC2, which is made of thinner polyurethane than the earlier model, so it conducts body heat and sensation better -- and rustles less. The FC2 should be available by autumn.

Weissman says that in the U.S., female condom use is important both for family-planning purposes and for protection against HIV/AIDS and other STDs. But his company has shifted its marketing and distribution scheme; it costs too much money, he says, to launch a consumer marketing campaign aimed at getting individual people to buy condoms. Instead, the company's working with family-planning and HIV/AIDS clinics throughout the country, brokering deals that allow clinics to dispense free female condoms just as they currently give out free male condoms.

Weissman sent me some samples of the FC2. I admire the ingenuity of their design (including the flexible rings at each end of the sheath, one of which holds the condom in place inside and other other outside the vagina), and I appreciate that they come in nice little purse-size packages. Putting them in place appears to require a bit more work than a male condom requires, but you can insert one up to 8 hours before engaging in sex, so any gymnastics can be done in private. But the best thing about female condoms is that they put women in charge. That alone makes me want to go buy a few, just to show my support.

If I were in a phase of life in which condom use figured, I'd buy some male condoms and some female condoms and keep both in my purse. Then, when the time came, I'd let my partner take his pick. "Neither" would not be an option.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  AIDS , Family Health , General Health , Prevention , Teens , Women's Health  
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Maybe I am a bit naive here...42 year old male in a long-term monogamous relationship...but I wonder how much education (and/or incentives) is going to be required in order for the populations that this seems targeted towards. My sense is that many women simply are not persistent in requiring a condom before sex with their partner and these men are not going to respond well to the FC, either. While it may be a simple discussion for you...educated and say "no condom, no sex", but I don't know that you are the type of woman who would benefit most from this option. Male condoms, as you point out, are the definition of simplicity, yet compliance among at-risk populations is still pretty weak. At a minimum the FC seems to require some knowledge of female anatomy and I am not sure that that information is as well-understood as you might expect.

Posted by: skipper7 | May 18, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: dsmithbarrow | May 18, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

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