No, Honey, I’ll Wear the Condom Tonight

By Kristen Yoh, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

Think fast: What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘condom’? Sex. Penis. Disease. Awkward. Complicated. Fun. These are a few answers I heard after posing that same question to a group of mostly young, female interns at the 2010 Summer Intern Training Series on Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. As the law and policy intern at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), I helped kick off the series last week with a session on female and male condoms. Over lunch, we discussed the social and political context surrounding condoms and explored possible solutions to increase their availability and decrease stigma.  

Men. Penis. Why do we associate condoms with men? True, a male condom is worn on man’s penis, but during heterosexual intercourse, it goes inside a woman’s vagina. Yet no one volunteered women or vagina. Nor did anyone raise the concept of condoms as a method of birth control. Condoms are key components to sexual and reproductive health precisely because they are the only dual prevention methods that protect both against HIV/STIs and unintended pregnancy. As the community outreach coordinator and tester at the D.C.-based Metro TeenAIDS, Dwayne Lawson-Brown emphasized that condoms protect both men and women, so both men and women need to learn, understand, and apply proper condom usage.

Disease. Difficult. HIV.  Even though male condoms serve both women and men, we cannot ignore the reality that gender inequality impedes universal usage. Many women around the globe must either persuade men to use a male condom or refuse unsafe sex and risk violence. However, female condoms are changing the conversation. As the only woman-initiated dual protection device, female condoms can help women take control of their sexual health and stake a claim to bodily autonomy.

Awkward. Foreign. Big. Even though most if
not all the interns had heard of female condoms, reactions to them were
less than positive. Female condoms seemed shrouded in mystery. Before
working at CHANGE, I had never seen a female condom. To me, they existed
as a progressive concept rather than a tangible product I could pick up
at my local CVS. In actuality, the FC2, the latest FDA-approved female
condom, is a sheath, the same length as an average male condom, held in
place by a polyurethane ring that is similar in appearance to the
NuvaRingâ. It is made to take on the shape (and the heat!)
of the vagina, and many couples say it’s more pleasurable than a male

And in cities like New York, D.C., and Chicago, where promotional campaigns
for female condoms encourage people to “put a ring on it!,” they really
are available at your local CVS. Internationally, donor countries
supplied approximately 18.2 million female condoms globally.

Complicated. Scary. Shameful.
Some individuals fear “putting a ring on it” presents a more daunting
task than the slogan suggests. A health educator in attendance shared
that women and girls often express anxiety about insertion, and as a
result are reluctant to try female condoms. Kim Whipkey, the senior
associate for advocacy and outreach at CHANGE, pointed out that similar
objections were raised against tampons in their early stages. An EZO tampon box from the 1930s
reflected these fears, promoting their tampons as a hygienic,
comfortable product that “does not interfere with the action of the
bowels or kidneys.” A
Tampax ad from the 1990s
tried to quell anxieties surrounding
virginity, reassuring young women that you don’t have to be
“experienced” to use tampons. Presently, Kotex ads are
trying to erase any remaining embarrassment around tampons by talking
about periods in a straight-forward manner, devoid of any euphemisms or
strange blue liquid. But regardless of any early stigma or lingering
shame, proper education and programming, and availability have made
tampons a commonly used, ubiquitous product. With proper promotion and
programming efforts, female condoms could achieve the same status.

 Fun. Sexy. Smart. These
positive responses are exactly what we love to hear when discussing
condoms. Condoms, both male and female, are key components to a healthy,
fun sex life.  Their importance to sexual and reproductive
health and rights locally and globally must not be overlooked. That is
why CHANGE leads the Prevention
Now! Campaign
, an initiative directed at increasing access to
existing prevention methods, especially female condoms. That’s also why
the Summer Intern Training Series culminates in an Advocacy Day on the
Hill, where interns will meet with their legislators’ offices to advance
key sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS issues domestically and

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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