Contraception eh?! Fun stuff, for some people it’s an everyday part of their existence. A pill they take day in day out for a massive chunk of their lives. Others implant something in their arm or their uterus and don’t think about it again for several years. For some people it’s a conversation every time they get their kit off, an expectation or negotiation for the best possible outcome each time. And until recently it’s always been a male centred device.
The female condom was originally made using a polyurethane which made it a) very expensive and b) akin to the sensation of having sex with a crisp packet. The newer model, FC2, is made with much cheaper (and quieter) nitrile but has struggled to overcome the stigma connected with the first model.
Basically, it’s a bigger, floppier and tougher version of the male condom that comes with some extra bonus features. Due to internal and external flexible rings the FC2 can be inserted before sexy times commence and removed after they’ve finished, reducing the embarrassing fumblings and lost moments of intimacy (male condom can only be applied when the guy is hard and has to be removed directly after ejaculation to prevent stray sperm from making their way into the partner). The flexy rings are also reported to increase sexual pleasure for both parties stimulating the clitoris of the woman and the head of the penis in the man during intercourse. The external ring also has the added benefit of covering parts of the external genitalia providing greater protection to users from STIs. FC2 can be used for both vaginal and anal sex. The key attraction of the FC2 however on a broad scale is that is currently the only method of STI prevention which is controlled by women.
Despite all these fabulously attractive positives to FC2, it remains unpopular and underused. Part of the reason for this is the cost, with a single item costing around 72c in current large scale production. The other part is that donors haven’t come onboard with the concept and potential benefit of the product and as such, distribution among communities with the most need is limited. But access is certainly not the only concern, social stigma, embarrassment, confusion and resistance to the size, feel and association of the FC2 is preventing it from being the success story it really should be. Despite the updated design and manufacture, women still complain about the noise and associated embarrassment (although from my experience of heterosexual sex, it’s never a particularly quiet affair….). I personally feel that convention is a massive part of the problem. We’re used to condoms, they’ve been around forever, they are a natural and normalised part of our sexual lives. FC2 on the other hand is new and kinda scary. It takes a bit of practice to get it inserted properly. It’s big and floppy and makes you think your vag must look somewhat similarly unattractive (not a nice thought right before you have sexy times).
As a queer woman it’s hard for me to judge my fellow ladies for not pushing the envelope with this one. I don’t really know what it’s like to use one, my contraception negotiation skills are fairly low. I get a lot of attitude like “we already have male condoms, they’re working fine, why fix it if it ain’t broke?”. To which I guess my reply would be with another question, are we sure that it ain’t broke?
With approximately 2.5 million (thanks Sony) new HIV infections worldwide every year, the majority of which are from sexual contact, I think we can safely say that it’s a little bit broken. We know that the effective and constant use of both male and female condoms are the only ways to protect against sexually transmitted HIV infection and while education, information and distribution of these products isn’t universal or always particularly good it is happening. So in the global fight to reduce the severity of the HIV pandemic and halt the increased infection of more people shouldn’t we be pulling out all the artillery we’ve got? Especially when this new tool shifts the focus from one partner to the other?
The feminist in me can’t help but shake my fist and growl “grrrrr patriarchy!”. The stagnation on pushing a woman centred contraceptive feels all too familiar and disappointing and the reticence around driving this potentially life saving device to the masses feels like just another opportunity to deny women autonomy and self-determination. I think we can safely say that across large swathes of the world, women have less control and power in their sexual lives that men and that regularly decision making around when, how, why and where sex happens is less a negotiation and more a resignation. Handing a little power back in a device that is controlled by women feels like a no brainer to me… but maybe I’m wrong ;o)
And thanks Caro for the article title. xxx
Image taken from lil’latvian‘s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License.