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Whatever you call it – love glove, salami sling or Casanova’s pet name, “English riding coat” – nothing quite beats today’s modern latex condom for cost-effectively blocking conception and sexually transmitted infections. Used correctly and consistently, an SABS-approved sheath can be counted on to all but eliminate the risk of post-coital mayhem, from after-hook-up paternity suits and HIV, to penile warts and a feeling your urine stream has turned into lit kerosene. (That last scenario – my late Uncle Phil’s description of the wartime clap he contracted after unprotected sex with an Italian prostitute – still gives my willy the willies.)
With so many problems so easily circumvented, why do most men see the rubber straitjacket as passion’s equivalent of cruciferous vegetables and dental floss? One obvious reason: condoms are also highly effective at blocking pleasure, spontaneity and emotional intimacy.
“Perhaps the most universal truth shared by men across the planet is that they hate wearing condoms,” says Danny Resnic, an American entrepreneur developing his own condom designs. “The basic design for the modern condom was developed a few years before the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. Since then, advances in aeronautics have sent probes to Mars, but other than the introduction of latex, the condom is nearly identical to the way it was.”
Or, to put the situation in an even more depressing light, we’re basically unrolling an incrementally improved version of the barrier contraption first depicted in French cave paintings circa 10 000BC.
When it comes to physical sensation, sex with a condom may not be quite as awful as dining with a sandwich bag on your tongue, but the analogy isn’t that far-fetched. As thin as latex stretches, it still blocks a cardinal feature of sex: the deliciously slippery feel of skin on skin.
Granted, this can be simulated somewhat by adding lubricants to the inside and outside of the condom. In a recent online ad for its Performax Intense condom, for instance, Durex boasts that its new product “is designed to speed her up and slow him down” – the latter courtesy of a special lubricant on the condom’s interior that’s been created to delay a man’s climax. Not to be outdone, Trojan claims that the “ultrasmooth” premium lubricant in its Pure Ecstasy condoms allows male and female users alike to “feel the pleasure, not the condom!”
Still, for many men, latex love just isn’t quite the same.
Women aren’t all that thrilled with them either, says Jenny Higgins, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. When Higgins surveyed 3 210 women, she was struck by how many described the drawbacks of condom sex in much the same way men did.
“I think we’ve just assumed that it doesn’t matter as much to women,” she says. “But many women complained about the same things men do: reduced sensation, decreased arousal, just not liking the feeling. In my work I use the term ‘sexual aesthetics’: the smell, taste and touch of the experience. As one woman put it, ‘I hate the way condoms feel. I hate the way they taste. I hate the way they smell.’ ”
Men, of course, have an additional burden: we must contend with the discomfort of actually wearing the things. A common lament here is that the rolled-out end of the condom is too tight – like an overinflated blood pressure cuff.
For both men and women alike, another negative is that the guy must take a break from the action to suit up. In Higgins’s survey, published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, nearly 30% of women reported that their arousal evaporates during this interlude. And in men, the problem is common enough to have spurred a new diagnosis: CAEP, or condom-associated erection problems.
Research has shown that as many as 28% of guys will lose their erection while putting on a condom – and once it’s on, up to 20% have problems maintaining an erection during intercourse itself.
“CAEP is definitely emerging as a new concern,” says Richard A. Crosby, chairman of the department of health behaviour at the University of Kentucky, who adds that even young, healthy men who have no underlying risk factors for erectile dysfunction often suffer from the condition. For reasons not fully understood, drugs like Viagra don’t always help either. In a 2013 study, Crosby and his co-authors suggest that CAEP can become a “repeating cycle” of performance anxiety and distraction that makes affected men much less likely to practise safe sex.
There’s also the fact that even in our presumably enlightened era, condom use still carries baggage. “When we started our company in 1987,” says Davin Wedel, founder and president of Global Protection Corp, “just saying the word ‘condom’ out loud was like saying ‘dildo’ – people’s heads swivelled. There was this sense that rubbers were something to use with prostitutes, not discuss in polite company. Social marketing since then has done a lot to help change the identity of condoms from something dirty to something much more acceptable.”
Even so, says Higgins, as long as condoms continue to be viewed first and foremost as venereal armour, they can’t help but change the nature of a tryst. “In our culture,” she explains, “you still wear condoms mainly with people you don’t know or don’t trust. It’s only when you’re with the person you do love and trust that you don’t wear them. Clearly, condoms are critical for public health. But it’s important to acknowledge it’s not just the physical sensation they impact. For many people, they are a barrier to emotional intimacy too.”
No wonder the condom remains such a tough sell. Though condom use among sexually active Americans increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it’s been waning ever since. After peaking at 20.4% in 1995, it has since dipped to 16.4%, according to a National Health Statistics Report released in 2012. And a June 2013 report released by the Human Sciences Research Council suggests that we don’t have anything to brag about either: the 2012 household survey of more than 37 000 South Africans found that condom use had declined in all age groups. A growing number of researchers now believe that the only hope for reversing this trend is a complete reimagining of the rubber.
Armchair invention is, I concede, an odd hobby for the likes of me, given my nearly total lack of mechanical aptitude. Nevertheless, at various points in my adult life, I’ve enjoyed dreaming up revolutionary new products. Case in point: my Peppermint Drip™ nasal suppository concept, designed not to cure the common cold but to make it easier to endure.
Given the antipathy toward condoms, it’s probably no surprise that I’ve invested (my wife prefers “wasted”) considerable time thinking about ways to make these easier to endure too. Who knows? Perhaps one of my out-of-the-box ideas for an ultimate in-the-box product could pay off handsomely someday.
I pour myself a beer and type “condom” into the search bar on Google Patent, marvelling at the ease of modern life. Such euphoria proves short-lived. Almost immediately, thousands of condom patents flood my computer screen. It doesn’t take long for the truth to hit me: pretty much everything I’ve conceived has already been thought up – and legally patented – often decades, if not centuries, in the past.
Take, for instance, my idea of a literal jimmy hat – a miniature penile fedora, if you will, that covers just the head. With the right adhesive this cover-up would effectively block sperm and disease-carrying semen, but not sensation. True, my jimmy hat wouldn’t offer protection against all the undesirable consequences of recreational sex. But a player’s two greatest buzzkills – microbial marauders and/or court-ordered child support – would be obviated, leaving his shaft gloriously unencumbered.
Alas, it takes less than a minute for me to discover WO 1999053873 AI, a “mini-condom” that its inventor describes as a glans-only device “that protects without covering all the penis’s body, allowing [for] natural and direct contact between the penis and vagina.”
One by one, my other strokes of genius fall by the wayside. Ointment condoms capable of killing cooties and conception the way sunscreens block UV radiation? These putative sperm-’n’-germ-killing “liquid condoms” have been tested in clinical trials – and failed.
Even my “clothes make the man” idea has been taken. This concept would allow condoms to be embossed with everything from Ed Hardy logos to a tiger shark or a flatteringly “not to scale” ruler capable of grade-inflating the everyman’s 14.2 centimetres (the average American guy’s erect stature, according to a 2013 survey of 1 661 men published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine – apparently South Africans measure in at an average of 15.2 centimetres) into something a bit more aspirational.
But as Davin Wedel later reveals, “Back when the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] allowed the sale of novelty condoms, we sold a ‘Peter Meter’ with a ruler on it. If you rolled it out an inch, it read ‘Teeny Weenie.’ Then a little further you reached ‘Average Joe,’ then ‘Stud’, ‘Hero’ and finally ‘Farm Animal.’ ”
I’ve felt the anxiety of a mid-tryst condom break – something that, alas, I can’t attribute to a member of equine proportions. Theoretically, breakage shouldn’t happen, except in rare circumstances. The World Health Organisation has estimated that with perfect use, condoms are 98% effective at preventing both pregnancy and the spread of disease – a success rate rarely matched by any other preventive intervention.
But “perfect use” is a far cry from the way real men and real women, in the heat of real passion, use condoms. Condoms can be torn by teeth or fingernails, fail to withstand the friction of spirited intercourse and/or slip off. And, for such a seemingly simple product, they’ve proven notoriously difficult to idiot-proof.
A sadly predictable number of users, for instance, will inevitably try to roll them on backwards, apply oil-based lubricants that degrade the latex, wait too long to put them on, take them off prematurely, reuse the same one over and over again and so forth. Don’t feel smugly superior to such morons: sex has a way of revealing the idiot in even the smartest of men.
“There are lots of reasons why condoms don’t necessarily protect as well as they theoretically should,” says Dr Stephanie Sanders, associate director of the Kinsey Institute. It doesn’t help that when many of us do reach for a condom, we are often fumbling in the dark, quite possibly drunk, extremely excited and under intense pressure to perform.
Thanks to such factors, condom effectiveness with “typical use” is more like 85%. But, a 15% failure rate can be a death sentence – with AIDS as the most common executioner. But even in affluent nations and income groups, where an advanced medical safety net can rescue us from sexual misadventures, a broken condom can come at considerable cost.
According to a 2012 Italian study, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise worldwide, fuelled largely by changing sexual mores – more partners, concurrent relationships and earlier loss of virginity – against a backdrop of increasingly inconsistent condom use with new partners. Some once easily curable infections, like gonorrhoea, have developed antibiotic resistance and become devilishly difficult to treat. Many other STIs are incurable. In the US, one such disease, genital herpes, now afflicts more than a quarter of American women.
Practising safe sex under such circumstances may seem obvious. Alas, when given the choice between maximising pleasure in the moment versus avoiding significant misery in the future, the libidinous brain is far from a perfect instrument for cost-benefit analysis.
“The condom still remains a medical device that’s used during sex,” says Crosby. “This has always been a mismatch. People aren’t thinking about disease when they have sex. They have sex to enjoy themselves. If we want people to more than just tolerate condoms, we need to start thinking of them not as medical devices at all, but rather as a way to boost pleasure – a kind of sex toy that optimises sensation.”
A couple of months ago, an entrepreneur in Northern California named Suzie Heumann took out a favourite silicone dildo and used sewing pins to attach her latest brainchild – the patent-pending “Condom with Frenulum, Corona and G-Spot Stimulation Device.”
Then she did what came naturally. “I started playing with it,” she recalls, “and, oh God, it was fabulous. I know women will like it.”
Heumann is confident men will love it too. But until she can find a better penile attachment method than steel pins, she understands her husband’s reticence to try the prototype. “We’re looking into specialty glues,” she says.
The concept is simple enough: a classic condom that includes a soft, rubbery ring placed just below the man’s corona. Positioned at a 33- to 35-degree angle relative to his shaft, the ring is mildly constrictive but free to slide back and forth slightly with each thrust and outstroke. This, Heumann says, provides both a sense of tighter fit and extra stimulation of his penile head. At the same time, its motion makes G-spot stimulation all but impossible to avoid.
Another hopeful prophylactic pioneer is Danny Resnic. His company, Origami Condoms, holds patents on a range of condoms, a few of which are currently in US National Institutes of Health-sponsored clinical trials.
“The penis is designed to move in a fluid environment,” says Resnic. “When you put on a traditional latex condom, you immediately eliminate that dynamic because the condom remains wedded to the skin.” His innovations include enough room for the penis to manoeuvre freely within a well-lubricated environment. Thanks to a cool design that looks like a space-age bellows, thrusting in and out creates a “reciprocating motion” which, says Resnic, feels remarkably like natural intercourse.
The ultimate success of either the G-spot pleasure stimulator or the Origami accordion – like so many other ideas over the decades – remains to be seen. But these aren’t the only hopes upon which we can pin our pleasure.
Enter an unlikely champion out to solve the problem: Bill Gates, a man few associate with hot sex. Last year he offered $100 000 to anyone who can come up with an affordable rubber that feels as good or better than not wearing one. Why: to limit the spread of STIs and unwanted pregnancies in developing nations.
“We know we could save millions of human lives with better condom use,” says Dr Papa Salif Sow, a physician from Senegal who now serves as senior programme officer on the HIV team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I think it’s a stellar idea,” says Crosby, who is convinced that such a condom would be a game changer in global health. By the submission deadline, the Foundation had received over 500 proposals from all over the world. These proposals, says the Foundation’s deputy director, Dr Stephen Becker, have since been triaged and sent on for evaluation by independent experts, who won’t be told anything about the inventors whose work they are reviewing. “The plan is to judge each idea on merit alone, unbiased by whether it comes from an Ivy League academic centre or a weekend inventor’s garage,” says Becker. “We anticipate that by the end of this process we will have around 10 proposals that will receive funding.”
So will any of these ideas bring us closer to the perfect prophylactic? Becker remains hopeful but realistic. “Even if nothing terribly innovative emerges, we could still get some promising general ideas, refine these and then do a second call for further submissions.”
I can’t help but admire Becker’s “try, try again” spirit. Yet perhaps it’s hubris to think that adding any contraption to copulation will ever do anything but degrade the experience.
“Maybe nature has created the perfect experience,” concedes the Kinsey Institute’s Sanders, “and we’re foolish to think we can mess with it.” She pauses just a beat before continuing. “But I have a question for you. Why, then, are vibrators so popular?”
That’s all I need to hear. I head to the computer to vet my latest idea with Google Patent.
By Jim Thorton