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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

Pop Goes the Weasel: Preventing Condom Breakage

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I am hanging out with a bunch of gay guys and they have lots of oral sex. Their answer to being “safe” is: “If you're sucking a guy off, pre-cum is safer than cum, so as long as you don't let him cum in your mouth, that's better.” Is pre-cum really safer than cum? What is going on here? What would you suggest for them?

Also, sharp-penis-guy is constantly breaking condoms. It doesn't seem to matter which brand he buys or the partner or what lube. It is agreed the sex doesn't seem particularly rough. Do you have any ideas? I was wondering if larger condoms might help, but he is not particularly large.

 I'm going to answer this question in two separate columns. To my knowledge, your friends' risk-reduction strategy of not getting semen in their mouths is an effective one, but I am going to do some more research on the level of HIV or other STIs that are present in pre-cum. Pre-seminal fluid does contain HIV.

Regarding condom breakage, there have been a number of studies that look at why this happens. These studies put the average condom breakage rate at about 2%, but breakage is not evenly distributed among all users—a small percentage of people who use condoms tend to be responsible for the majority of broken ones. In other words, it's not the condom—it's you. "User error" accounts for most broken condoms, rather than faulty condom construction.

You mention rough sex and lubricant, which can be two factors that affect condom breakage. Using water-based or silicone lubricant with condoms can reduce breakage, although you don't want to use so much lube that the condom slips off. Oil-based lubricants (which include popular male-oriented brands like Boy Butter or Stroke 29) increase the chances of condoms breaking because they cause latex to deteriorate. Rough sex, especially without adequate lubrication, might increase the chances of breaking a condom, but that doesn't seem to be a factor here.

When people in my classes or in the store ask me about condoms breaking, I almost always talk first about how they are putting the condoms on. Research on why certain people have a high breakage rate has found that not pinching the tip of the condom appears to be one factor. Placing the unrolled condom against the head of the penis and then pinching the tip before unrolling eliminates air bubbles and creates a reservoir at the tip of the condom for semen to go after ejaculation. Leaving air bubbles at the tip, or alternatively pulling the condom tight against the head of the penis, can both increase the chances of condoms breaking. Pulling the condom on like a sock instead of placing it against the head of the penis and then unrolling has also been shown in studies to be correlated with higher breakage rates.

Condom storage is also important. I feel like many people know this already, but it bears repeating. Heat and light cause latex to break down, so condoms must be stored in cool, dark places. Purses and nightstands = good; wallets stuffed in back pockets or glove compartments of cars = bad. If a condom feels brittle, sticky or dry when coming out of the package, it likely has been stored improperly or is past its expiration date. 

I wouldn’t recommend larger condoms for someone who does not feel that regular condoms are tight or uncomfortable. Larger condoms can slip off more easily, which is just as bad as breakage. I do recommend trying different brands to see if some feel more comfortable, which it sounds like sharp-penis-guy is doing. There are many brands now that have more room in the head of the condom, such as ONE Pleasure Dome, that might be worth a try if a tight fit against the head of the penis appears to be an issue. There is also a whole new generation of non-latex condoms made of polyurethane or polyisoprene, like Lifestyles Skyn. Polyisoprene in particular seems to be more resistant to breakage than standard latex condoms, so if your friend hasn't tried the new non-latex condoms that are out on the market, I'd recommend that as well.

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.