The female condom was supposed to be a gamechanger. Originally conceived by Lasse Hessel—a famous Danish inventor who patented a number of health-related creations—the female condom patent was purchased by Wisconsin Pharmacals in the late 1980’s. It was the height of the AIDs crisis and the twentieth-century women’s health movement. It should have been the perfect storm for the female condom to take off. However, when Wisconsin Pharmacals introduced the female condom to market in 1993, all they heard was laughter.
Journalists compared the female condom to a windsock, jellyfish, colostomy bag, and more. 30-50% of women had difficulty inserting them, and they tended to make loud rustling noises during sex. Despite Wisconsin Pharmacal’s six years of work to bring Hessel’s original design to market, despite the advertising campaigns and the excitement of public health officials, the female condom just didn’t sell. Mary Ann Leeper, a Wisconsin Pharmacal executive at the time of the female condom’s launch, said “We did all the checklist things that you’re supposed to do,” in a 2014 interview with Mosaic. “And we fell flat on our face.”
It’s tricky to pinpoint what exactly kept the female condom from becoming popular. It might have been the price, which was higher than the male condom. It might have been the noises it made. It might have been the lack of education around how to use the female condom, which requires some finesse to insert. Likely, though, it was the novelty of the object. While male condoms closely resemble the penises they cover and thus feel intuitive to use, female condoms resemble the negative space in a woman’s sexual anatomy—a taboo anatomy that is not popularly understood by the American public. In any case, the female condom was seen as a faddish, feminist response to the male condom, and failed to gain traction in American and European markets.
Two years after the female condom’s introduction, Wisconsin Pharmacals received a call from the Zimbabwean government informing them that 30,000 women had signed a petition to introduce the female condom to the Zimbabwean market. The female condom, and Wisconsin Pharmacal, switched course. Wisconsin Pharmacal changed its name to the Female Health Company in 1996 and began to focus on global public sector, rather than American private sector. They also tweaked the female condom’s design, launching the FC2 in 2007. While the FC2 retained the basic shape of the FC1, the material switched from noisy polyurethane to hypoallergenic, cheaper and stronger nitrile. The number of female condoms distributed across the globe doubled from 2007 to 2010.
Still, the FC2 didn’t quite change the reputation of the female condom. Though they can be ordered in bulk for as little as 55 cents a piece, they still can’t match the price of male condoms, which can be ordered in bulk for 2 cents a piece. While they’ve found more of a foothold in other countries than the U.S., they represent only 1.6% of all condoms distributed worldwide. The failure rate of the female condom is slightly higher than the failure rate of the male condom, in part because so few women understand how to insert and use them properly.
But history may not have seen the last of the female condom. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the female condom, as seen by the formation of advocacy groups like the National Female Condom Coalition in America and the Netherlands-based Universal Access to Female Condoms Joint Programme. Inventors and health startups like PATH in Seattle have been tinkering with the female condom, developing new designs that include dissolvable applicators, accordion-folding pouches, and attached underwear.
The female condom has some advantages to the male condom that are often overlooked. It doesn’t require an erection and can be inserted up to 8 hours before sex. Its nitrile material is stronger and more hypoallergenic than latex. It’s useful for smaller or larger penises that might not fit in standard-sized male condoms. Though the female condom requires a little practice to use correctly, so does the male condom. The female condom is a great option for women who can’t use hormonal contraception and have partners who won’t wear male condoms.
Christine Ro writes in her Atlantic article, “The Enduring Unpopularity of the Female Condom”, “Female condoms are unpopular because they’re not widely discussed or available. And they’re not widely discussed or available because they’re unpopular.” This is the circular reasoning that new versions of the female condom are attempting to disrupt. Hessel himself admits that his design can only be improved, calling his original prototype “ugly” and “clumsy”.
The female condom is the only female-centered contraceptive that prevents the spread of STIs. Studies show that offering them alongside male condoms increases the number of protected sex acts and decreases the spread of STIs. Even if female condoms aren’t for you, they might be the right choice for someone else. It’s important that the choice exists, even if it’s not the one for you. So let’s get talking about female condoms and break the stigma!
If you’re not sure about female condoms but are interested in hormonal forms of birth control, we’ve designed an easy and affordable online consultation that allows you to conveniently get a prescription from home (or wherever you happen to be). We offer the birth control pill, patch, or ring for as low as $15 a month (or free with insurance). Based on your health history and birth control preferences, a doctor will recommend the best fit, then we’ll deliver it to your door–right when you need it.
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