Dec 17, 2008

Lifestyle - Safe Sex


It's been exactly 15 years since the FDA first approved "female condoms," but it still hasn't found its niche, except perhaps in the sex trade. In fact, while engineers at Apple have already released the next iteration of the 18-month-old iPhone, there hasn't even been a second-generation product of the lady-centric contraceptive.

But the Chicago-based Female Health Company is hoping to change that. Its redesigned product, which contains a softer type of rubber called nitrile as well as adhesive foam, is being reviewed by the FDA and, if approved, could be available for sale in the U.S. sometime next year. As a "Class 3 Medical Device," female condoms are held to the same rigorous FDA standards as pacemakers, heart valves and silicone breast implants, with clinical trials costing as much as $6 million. Male condoms, which are Class 2 devices, are much cheaper to produce and need only pass breakage tests. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

Complaints about female condoms are not so different from those about the male version: slippery, noisy, awkward, uncomfortable. "The yuck factor was a problem," Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, told the New York Times last year when explaining the device's failure to catch on. Then there's the stigma associated with buying condoms, a topic even the Golden Girls once addressed.

Of course, the history of protected sex, in the broadest sense, used to be a whole lot yuckier. Take the practice of women in ancient Egypt, who resorted to using crocodile dung as a spermicide. Modern research has shown that crocodile dung actually created optimum conditions for sperm because of its alkalinity, but the sheer grossness of the practice might have worked if only to completely ruin the mood. (See pictures of animal attraction.)

In the 1540s, an Italian doctor named Gabriele Fallopius - the same man who discovered and subsequently named the fallopian tubes of the female anatomy - wrote about syphilis, advocating the use of layered linen during intercourse for more "adventurous" (read: promiscuous) men. Legendary lover Casanova wrote about his pitfalls with medieval condoms made of dried sheep gut, referring to them as "dead skins" in his memoir. Even so, condoms made of animal intestine - known as "French letters" in England and la capote anglaise (English riding coats) in France - remained popular for centuries, though always expensive and never easy to obtain, meaning the device was often re-used.

In 1844, Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanizing rubber, inadvertently ushering in an entirely new era in contraception - condoms as thick as bicycle tires and still considered re-usable. But getting one's hands on this new-fangled "technology" became a whole lot harder in 1873, when Congress passed the Comstock Law, prohibiting the transportation of obscene material like prophylactics and pornography. (See pictures of pin-up queen, Bettie Page.)

The 1930s saw the invention of latex as well as the invention of the first-ever female condom in the U.S., the "Gee Bee Ring." In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had the constitutionally protected right to contraception; in 1972 that same right was extended to unmarried couples. (Ireland prohibited condom sales until 1978, the Catholic Church still condemns them).

Condom use waned in the 1960s after the introduction of the birth control pill and remained stagnant until the arrival of the AIDS virus in the 1980s, when sales exploded, jumping 33% in the U.S. in 1987. Today, some 6 billion condoms are sold worldwide each year, though sales have plateaued in the past decade - policy experts blame "prevention fatigue" while condom-makers (the ones targeting men anyways) have responded by becoming increasingly creative, or perhaps ridiculous. What began as a simple choice between lubricated, ribbed or custom-fit now includes flavored, novelty (Star Wars prophylactic anyone?) and glow-in-the-dark. One can even purchase condom accessories like the $28 Condo-M, a plastic and aluminum bedside container. (Think Pez dispenser for grown-ups). Even the presidential campaign spawned Barack Obama and John McCain-themed condoms with corresponding slogans ("Who says experience is necessary?" for the former, "Old, but not expired" for the latter). (Read about permanent birth control.)

The origin of the word "condom" is unknown, though the story of a certain Dr. Condom in 19th century England remains one of the more persistent myths. The term at least trumps "intravaginal pouch," a phrase suggested in lieu of "female condom" by an FDA panel tasked in the early 1990s with reviewing an early prototype of the women's contraceptive.

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