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Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012

Have We Given Up on Female Condoms in the U.S.?

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, is the first Global Female Condom Day. Although the day is meant to be international in scope, it is coordinated by the National Female Condom Coalition, a group of U.S.-based organizations. During my 15 years working as a sexuality educator, there seems to have been greater acceptance of the female condom outside of the United States, despite the fact that the product is manufactured by a Midwestern company based in Chicago.

In all the time that I've been teaching about safer sex on college campuses or at sex ed teacher trainings, the reaction to female condoms has not changed: Any time I pull out a sample and start talking about it, the vast majority—if not all—of the people in the room have never seen one and don't know how it works. I think this is a shame, and I'm not willing to give up on female condoms as a safer sex tool. (For a previous SEXpress column that describes how female condoms work and what their advantages are, click here.)

The main arguments for why the female condom hasn't caught on are that it's expensive (at the Tool Shed, one female condom costs $2, while male condoms cost 50 cents or $1 each) and that it's difficult to use. The cost of the female condom has gradually been decreasing, but will probably always be higher than male condoms, and that can definitely be a barrier to their use. The “hard-to-use” argument is somewhat specious, in my opinion.

People think they know how to use male condoms correctly, but in fact, most male condom failures are caused by “user error”—putting them on after sex has already started, pulling them tight against the head of the penis (which increases the risk of breaking), and so on. Female condoms are not any more difficult to use, but since we're unfamiliar with them, they seem more intimidating than they actually are. Also, men are often taught that it's OK to touch and handle their penises (which you have to do to put a male condom on), while women are often taught that it's not OK to touch their vaginas (which you have to do to insert a female condom).

Organizations that distribute female condoms have found that it takes more than one go to get comfortable with them (which, again, I think is also true of the male condom—no one gets anything perfectly right the first time). The recommendation is now to encourage people to try them at least twice, and to perhaps practice inserting and removing one by yourself before actually using one for sex with a partner.

To that end, as part of Global Female Condom Day, the Tool Shed is giving away one free female condom per person on Sept. 12. Consider this your freebie, your “first try,” your practice condom. Our staff will be on hand to explain how to use them and answer any questions you may have. If you've been curious about trying them, this is your chance.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side. She has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than 15 years. 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.
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