Without protection, you’d be having a lot less sex. With them, sex is a lot less enjoyable. It looks like a stalemate in the sack… unless, that is, someone can reinvent the rubber.
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 FDA-approved jimmy hat or Johnny bag can be counted on to all but eliminate the risk of postcoital mayhem, from after-hook-up paternity suits and HIV, to penile warts and a feeling your urine stream has turned into lit kerosene.
With so many problems so easily circumvented, why do most men see the rubber strait-jacket 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 an 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!”
Should you put it on yourself? Or let her do it for you? Mix it up to keep things fun and interesting.
Still, for many men, latex love just isn’t quite the same.
Women aren’t all that thrilled with them either, says Jenny Higgins, a US assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Prof 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.
For both men and women alike, another negative is that the guy must take a break from the action to suit up. In Prof Higgins’ survey, published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, nearly 30 percent 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 percent of guys will lose their erection while putting on a condom. And once it’s on, up to 20 percent have problems maintaining an erection during intercourse.
"CAEP is emerging as a new concern,” says Richard A.
Crosby, chairman of the Department of Health Behavior 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, Prof Crosby and his coauthors 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 swiveled. 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 Prof 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. A growing number of researchers now believe that the only hope for reversing this trend is a complete re-imagining of the rubber.
“IT’S NOT JUST THE PHYSICAL SENSATION THEY IMPACT. FOR MANY PEOPLE, THEY ARE A BARRIER TO EMOTIONAL INTIMACY, TOO.”
RETHINKING THE CAP
At various points in my adult life, I’ve enjoyed dreaming up revolutionary new products. Given the antipathy towards 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. 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 notion of a literal jimmy hat – a miniature penile fedora, if you will, that covers just the head of the member. With the right adhesive – I’m imagining a mix of Post-it notes paste and Gorilla Glue might do the trick – 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 the entire penis, allowing for direct contact between the penis and vagina.
One by one, my other strokes of genius fall by the wayside. Ointment condoms capable of kiboshing cooties and conception the way sunscreens block UV radiation? These putative sperm-and-germ-killing “liquid condoms” have been tested in clinical trials – and flunked.
Even my “clothes make the man” idea has been taken. This concept would allow condoms to be embossed with everything from Brooks Brothers to an Ed Hardy logo to a tiger shark or a flattering “not to scale” ruler capable of grade-inflating an everyman’s erection into something a bit more aspirational.
But as Davin later reveals: “Back when the FDA 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,’ then ‘Hero,’ and finally ‘Farm Animal.’”
THE REALITIES OF BREAKAGES
On more than one dispiriting occasion, I’ve felt the anxiety of a mid-tryst condom break – something that, unfortunately, I can't attribute to possessing a member of epic proportions.
Theoretically, breakage shouldn’t happen except in rare circumstances. The World Health Organization has estimated that with perfect use, condoms are 98 percent 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, if they use them at all. Condoms can be torn by teeth or fingernails, fail to withstand the friction of spirited intercourse, and/or slip off in flagrante delicto. Moreover, for such a seemingly simple product, condoms have also proven 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, re-use the same one over and over, and so forth. Don’t feel smugly superior to such dunderheads – 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 Stephanie Sanders, associate director of the Kinsey Institute. More research is needed, she says, to understand where the rubber meets the penis. 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 percent. For people in sub-Saharan Africa and other famine-prone regions, a 15 percent failure rate can be a death sentence, with Aids as the most common executioner. But even in affluent nations, where an advanced medical safety net can rescue us from many of our 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 remain incurable.
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 Prof 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."
“WE NEED TO START THINKING OF CONDOMS AS A WAY TO BOOST PLEASURE; A KIND OF SEX TOY.”
THE LOOK AHEAD
A hopeful prophylactic pioneer is Danny. His company, Origami Condoms, holds patents on a range of condoms, a few of which are currently in clinical trials.
“The penis is designed to move in a fluid environment,” says Danny. “When you put on a traditional latex condom, you immediately eliminate that dynamic because the condom remains wedded to the skin.”
By contrast, 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” with the condom, which, he says, feels like natural intercourse.
The ultimate success of the Origami accordion – like so many other ideas hatched over the decades – remains to be seen. Luckily, these aren’t the only hopes upon which we can pin our pleasure.
Enter an unlikely champion out to solve the condom conundrum: Bill Gates, a man few associate with hot sex. In 2013, he offered US$100,000 to anyone who can come up with an affordable rubber that feels as good or better than not wearing one at all. His motivation: mostly to help limit the spread of STIs and unwanted pregnancies in developing nations, where men won’t touch condoms with a 10-foot pole – or their 6-inchers.
“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 program officer on the HIV team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “That’s why the Gates Foundation is so interested in inspiring new condom concepts.”
By the submission deadline, the Bill & Melinda Gates 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,” says Dr Becker. “We anticipate that by the end of this process, we will have about 10 proposals that will receive funding.”
So will any of these ideas bring us closer to the perfect prophylactic? Dr 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 Dr Becker’s “try, try again” spirit. And 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 Dr 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.
LEARN TO LOVE THE GLOVE
Or at least try not to hate the jimmy hat quite so much.
FIND YOUR SIZE
An ill-fitting rubber is an “oops” in the making. “If it’s too tight, it’s more likely to break,” says Richard Crosby, a sex researcher. “And if it’s too loose, it won’t stay on.” The key to a good fit? “Buy a snug, a standard and a large condom from the major brands,” says Prof Crosby. Test them during masturbation. “It’s like trying on jeans – you can tell right away which pair you feel most comfortable in.”
SHOP FOR TWO
Your own condom contentment is important, but if your wife isn’t happy, you’ll be only halfway to satisfying sex, says sex researcher Jenny Higgins. Guys focus on fit and feel, she says, “but for many women, a condom’s lubrication is much more important.” Your play: Avoid rubbers with spermicidal lubricants, which can irritate vaginal tissues, and keep a tube of water-based lube ready.
SCHEDULE DRESS REHEARSALS
A study by Prof Crosby offered a tip young guys embraced: Practise putting on a condom during masturbation. “Experimenting in privacy removed any pressure, awkwardness and sense of being judged, allowing them to master this skill,” he says. The idea is to replace conscious thought with reflexive action.