It took me until my 30s to even try a female condom. They can cost as much as $4 each. Male partners are often confused by the sight of them them. And I have to order them online, which means that the spontaneous dash-to-the-corner-store approach won’t work.
Yet female condoms have become my favorite and most reliable form of contraception — yes, before even male condoms. In case you haven’t seen one, a female condom is pouched-shaped and inserted inside the vagina by a woman; a ring on the end stays outside the vagina, covering the labia. Unlike male condoms, which require a man put it on his penis, a female condom puts the woman in complete control of the contraception. And they’re an effecitve one at that — as the sexual health blog Bedsider.org explains, female condoms protect you from STDs/STIs (always a concern!), including HIV, as well as unwanted pregnancy. They can also be used with both oil- or water-based lube and are safe for anyone with a latex allergy. Sounds great, right?
So, why aren’t female condoms more widely available? The truth is, a chicken-and-egg problem exists: drugstores say that they don’t carry female condoms because no one buys them; female condom manufacturers say more people would buy them if drugstores carried them.
Jessica Terlikowski, founder of the National Female Condom Coalition, said that “a lack of awareness that the product exists in the first place,” as well as availability, are two main reasons why female condoms are difficult to come by. “Even individuals who have heard of female condoms and want to use them are unable to access them consistently,” Terlikowski said. She noted how that inconsistency can make finding and using female condoms a burden: for example, if the clinic runs out or the online store doesn’t have a regular supply date, even the most ardent users may decide that despite its benefits female condoms aren’t worth the hassle.
Some problems with the female condoms boil down to bad PR. “I think the biggest misconception about female condoms is that people don’t want them and won’t use them. We know that is simply not true,” added Terlikowski. “The other misconception is that they don’t enhance sexual pleasure. They definitely can! The wider, looser fit, the heat-conducting material, and the rings all can contribute to a more pleasurable experience for both partners.”
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This echoes many of the comments I’ve heard from other women who try to introduce female condoms to their partners: because they’re slightly more complicated to use than male condoms, people dismiss them as “too much trouble.” The stigma surrounding female condoms also speaks to larger issues about the way both men and women feel about women’s genitalia: inserting a female condom is arguably a more intimate act than sheathing a male condom over a penis. Additionally, because male sex organs are external, it’s easier to see whether the condom is being used correctly. In my conversations with friends, fans of female condoms usually say it took “a few tries” to get it right, and, for many women, those odds are too much to play with. Both the costs and the risks add up quickly. Of these dedicated female condom users, all of them — me included — tried them in the relative safety of a monogamous relationship, while using a backup method like the Pill to make sure they wouldn’t get pregnant.
Alas, not everyone has the option of contraceptive trial and error. Judy Silwana is a sex educator in South Africa, and she has been a leading proponent of female condom use in her country. It has been a challenge, though, and she believes that sexism and traditional ideas about gender roles have a lot to do with that. “The female condom is considered strange, as it is the tendency of men to lead relationships, and women to have little say,” she said in an interview with Avert.org. “Women don’t initiate sex or negotiate sex and can become victims depending if men decide to wear [condoms] or not – women are helpless. The female condom changes things.” Avert.org also notes that governments and NGOs have been dispersing millions of female condoms throughout the world.
Back in the United States, we have struggling to widely accept the female condom as much as we do other forms of birth control. The difference in perception between male and female condoms, for example, is evident even in its packaging. Go to any Walgreen’s or CVS and you’ll see rows of male condoms in different colors, sizes, flavors, and textures. Yet there’s only one major brand of female condoms available in the United States, the FC2 or Reality female condom, and its wrapper makes no promise about being “ribbed for her pleasure.” As feminist blogger Amanda Hess wrote in the Washington City Paper regarding female condoms, “[T]he main roadblock to female condom use is cultural, not economic.”
What will it take to get female condoms to become more accessible and widely used? Educating young women and men about female condoms is a good place to start. Health clinics, school nurse’s offices and drugstores could make an effort to make female condoms more available , while manufacturers could reduce the price (the FC2 is already cheaper to produce than the original version, the FC). But deep down, increased use of female condoms may depend on something else: the stigma related to women, their bodies, and their right to be in control of their sex life.