female condom

Does the female condom empower women?

There is a floppy plastic packet hanging out somewhere in my sock drawer. Larger and more pliable than a conventional condom, packaging decorated with a pink “lady” sign, the female condom, which I must have picked up at my college women’s center once, lays in wait. 

If I chose to use the female — or, because the device can be used both vaginally and anally by people of many genders, the “internal” — condom, I would open the packet to find a longish, flexible polyurethane or nitrile sheath with a ring on either end. I would insert the smaller ring into my vagina and tuck it behind my pubic bone, while the larger ring would cover my inner labia. When I had sex, my vagina would be protected by the tube.

We’ve covered the female condom at Feministing at various points over the years, yet it remains for many the Disney-movie stepsister of the external condom: Easy to ridicule, unpopular, and with a long, bumpy history. When the female/internal condom (then branded the “Reality” condom, because, you know, vaginas are pretty real) was first put onto the market in the early nineties, women hurt its feelings by dubbing it “jellyfish,” windsock,” and “hot air balloon.”

female condomBeyond aesthetics, the female condom has led a controversial life.

Invented in the eighties by a Danish scientist, and developed for American use by a small Midwestern pharmaceuticals company, the internal condom was developed, marketed, and FDA approved in the shadow of HIV/AIDs. The device, inserted into the vagina, was (and remains) the only barrier contraceptive that offers protection from STIs that was worn in the body of the penetrated partner — a fact that led to enthusiastic FDA approval of the device in light of its potential to protect women, who were growing more and more vulnerable to HIV. The Reality condom thus became marketed as a device that would “empower” women, affording them reproductive control when the men in their lives refused to use condoms.

By this time, it had become clear that the “Reality” condom could also be used as an effective barrier for anal sex, offering another form of protection for anyone who engaged in it — and particularly men who had sex with men. At the height of the AIDs epidemic, many saw this as an incredible benefit.

The FDA didn’t. Without any guidelines in place to test barrier devices intended for non-vaginal use, the FDA refused to approve the Reality condom as an anal barrier — thereby limiting its marketing potential and thus, its ability to save lives. Some argue that this decision was the result of simple homophobia; others say that, while homophobia obviously played a role, part of what prevented FDA approval for the female condom as an anal device was the very same discourse of female empowerment that made the administration so take to the device — a rhetoric of female empowerment that precluded queer men.

While sales in the United States stalled, the female condom went on to do fairly well in the international market — and specifically in Global South countries with substantial AIDs epidemics.

Nowadays, some posit that the female condom is experiencing a comeback.

For more, I turned to my friend, former classmate, and fabulous feminist Susannah Savage, whose Harvard thesis on the female/internal condom is the first and only comprehensive history of the device. A former sexual health and relationships counselor and History of Science and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality graduate who has interned at Planned Parenthood, Susannah asks the question: What transforms a piece of plastic into an object of empowerment – and what happens when empowerment is more complicated than marketers promise?

RG: I love your discussion on the way the female condom acquired these discourses of empowerment, and more generally how a sheet of plastic was able to be imbued with so many cultural meanings. This obviously is similar to the way all technology works — it’s just a material object, it acquires all these meanings through culture. What did writing this teach you about that interplay between an object’s materiality and its cultural implications?

SS: It’s impossible to have a device that’s not imbued with some kind of meaning. Ultimately technologies don’t really exist outside of the meaning that people put onto them.

If you think of the female condom as the hub of a wheel, I think of all the other things that are going into it as the spokes of a wheel: the FDA, the scientists that manufacture it, the journalists that write about it. They all project onto this device whatever meaning they hope for it to have. And the sweet spot for having a successful technology that is easy to commodify is that all the meanings match up. But problems arise and tensions arise, particularly in gendered objects, when users see it in a way the advertisers don’t see.

getontopRG: So what about the way in which female condom marketing commodified “empowerment”?

SS: If you make empowerment a device’s selling point, it is very important for users of the device to be 100% bought in to what the manufacturer or advertiser believes the device to be. Because otherwise, if you have users who aren’t empowered by the device or don’t want to be empowered by the device or have a different understanding of what empowerment means than the advertiser, it almost cheapens the idea of empowerment, it renders it laughable, it renders it unreal. The idea of promoting empowerment isn’t a bad one, but if you attempt to do it and attempt to commodify it and it doesn’t work, you’re left with this empty shell of a talking point that doesn’t mean anything to anyone.

There was an article in the Washington Post about this reporter who goes into bars during happy hour and starts showing the female condom to both men and women. She focuses on groups of women, so the women she’s showing this to are sort of the women who are being targeted in early female condom advertisements — young, professional, female, white, generally with disposable income, middle-class. They look at the condom and they say “Yeah, I’ll use that,” but ultimately the selling point of the device was if your male partner won’t use a condom you can have your own, you’re empowered now in the realm of sex. And these women are saying, “If a guy won’t use a condom, I wouldn’t have sex with him.” So they were trying to sell the condom to empower women who are already empowered in that way.

RG: I’ve heard you use the phrase “grassroots repurposing” in reference to a technology or device. What does that mean, and what are some “grassroots” uses of the female condom?

When I think of grassroots repurposing of a device and projecting meaning onto it, this comes very much from me being a sexual health and relationships counselor and working at Planned Parenthood and talking to men and women whose relationships to birth control, contraception, sex do not fit the narrative of what sex “should” be. For example, I have men come in who don’t want to have sex with their partner before she’s on birth control, which is against the narrative of “men won’t use a condom.”

There’s a subtle shift in the top-down messages we’re told about a device: Everything from “I want to use it for anal sex” to “I like this device just fine, I think it’s great, but I don’t see it as that different from the external male condom, so I’m just going to use the male condom because I’m habituated to it,” to “I think this device is awesome, but I don’t see it as an empowerment device, it’s just something we like to use.” So there’s this very wide human response — it’s varied, it’s different for every person, it’s experienced.

RG: What about female condom marketing abroad?

SS: The most successful introduction of the female condom was in Zimbabwe, and that was in many ways because local women took the condom and imbued it with meaning that was meaningful to them in terms of the type of empowerment and the type of sex they want to have.

There was this joint study looking at female condom use in Brazil and Kenya in 1997, in which the researchers were just like, quote, “surprised” by how receptive men were to the condom. And if you actually looked at the quotes, it was basically a man being like, “Stop portraying us as evil, stop portraying us as unhelpful and wanting our wives to be hurt – we are human too.” That also doesn’t fit into the narrative, having a male who is supportive and wants to help.

RG: Anything else?

SS: I love the female condom. I think it’s an awesome thing to have.

Header image credit: Laura Lopez Gonzales

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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