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Thursday, April 1, 2010

All the Single People, Put a Ring on It

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Last month, the Chicago Female Condom Campaign got some press for its new initiative to promote awareness of the redesigned female condom (known as the FC2). The campaign, called "Put A Ring On It", touts the benefits of the FC2, which is worn internally in the vagina or anus and held in place by two rings—hence the name of the campaign. The FC2 is great for people with latex allergies (it's made of nitrile, a kind of rubber), couples for whom male condoms are uncomfortable or break a lot, and for promoting intimacy—nitrile transmits body heat nicely, and the insertive partner doesn't have to withdraw immediately after ejaculation the way he has to with a male condom. In addition, it can be inserted several hours ahead of time and left in place, so if you want to have some spontaneous sex in the restaurant bathroom after your dinner date, you are prepared.

I remember when the female condom was first introduced more than 15 years ago as the only STI prevention method controlled by the receptive sex partner, who is generally more vulnerable to contracting STIs. Until then, the only way of reducing STI transmission risk was to use male external condoms, and if a man refused to use them or was unable to maintain an erection while using them, there was no other option. So, the original female condom, which was called Reality, was met with great excitement by the sexuality education community.

Interestingly, the female condom failed to catch on in the United States. Even though I've been teaching people about this device for the last decade, I still seem to come up against the same general lack of awareness about them that I did when they were first made available. Most people I talk to now have heard of female condoms, but have never seen one, let alone used one. This is often chalked up to the fact that FCs were more expensive than male/external condoms and that they made noise during sex—since they were constructed of loose-fitting polyurethane rather than tight-fitting latex like most male condoms, there is the potential for them to shift around during sex and make rustling or squeaking noises.

The redesigned FC2 is both less expensive and made of nitrile, which is a softer, more flexible material that is less likely to make noise during sex. The makers of the FC (who are based in Chicago, by the way) heard users' concerns and took steps to correct them. I'm sad that along the way they changed the name from the gender-neutral "Reality" to "Female Condom," since the condom can be used by men for anal sex. Many sex educators prefer using the terms "external condom" and "internal condom" rather than male or female condoms, and I wish that they had chosen some form of "internal condom" as the product's official name.

All that aside, though, I think the biggest barrier to widespread use of the new FC2 is its unfamiliarity. When showing it to people 10 years ago, I used to say, "Yes, this seems unusual now, but so did male condoms 40 years ago, before they were widely promoted for HIV prevention. Once more people start using the female condom, then it won't be so difficult to talk about with new sex partners." I was so confident that by 2010 the FC would at least be as widely understood, if not as widely used, as the male condom. Now, we seem to be caught in a weird loop: It's hard to find FCs, so people aren't aware of them, and since they aren't in demand, fewer stores stock them, making them hard to find.

Ironically, now that the cheaper, better FC2 has been introduced, they're even more difficult to find. I had to switch condom distributors at the Tool Shed in order to be able to carry them there. The drugstore in my neighborhood doesn't stock them, and when I asked about them, the staff didn't know if and when they would have them. At the Chicago-area college health clinic where I work, our pharmacy declined to participate in the Chicago Female Condom Campaign's bulk purchase of FC2s, saying that there wasn't enough demand from students.

However, our local Planned Parenthood clinics in Milwaukee do carry the FC2s, and you can buy them online at Condomania. If you ever get down to Chicago, take advantage of the free FC2s that are available at participating "Put a Ring on It" sites. If you’d like to take a look at one before purchasing, stop by the Tool Shed, and we will be happy to explain how they work. I also urge you to ask for them (repeatedly!) at your local drugstore or other place where you buy safer sex products to help create this elusive "demand" that is so important to retailers. And talk to your friends and partners about this product. Having more than one option for STI prevention is important, and only through open dialogue can we make the unfamiliar acceptable.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.