If biomedical researchers are successful, today’s condoms may become quaint relics of the past. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a bundle of grants (beginning at $100,000 and increasing to $1,000,000) to a variety of different research teams. The purpose of the research is to look for ways to bring condoms into line with 21st century technology, and enlist them in the fight against disease and overpopulation.

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Gates:  condoms are on his mind

The venerable condom, which has been around in one form or another for over 400 years, is long overdue for an overhaul. For centuries, animal skins were the preferred condom material. With the adoption of latex in the mid-20th century, standards became more or less frozen for decades. New ideas are desperately needed.

Some of the more cutting-edge proposals have a good chance of general acceptance, as they hold out the possibility of enhancing the sexual experience while sacrificing nothing in the way of safety. Surveys have consistently shown that men want a condom that is (1) easy to put on, and (2) is as close to unprotected sex as possible. The Gates Foundation rightly recognized that the biggest roadblock to condom use is the decrease in pleasure felt by both men and women. After much study, trial, and experimentation, the 11 different research teams have advanced the following ideas.

1. Female condoms that use air pressure as an aid to insertion, or that have advanced “ribbing” in the interior for increased stimulation.

2. Replacing the classic latex condom with a condom made from “hydrogel.”  Hydrogel is a synthetic material that is supposed to feel more like flesh than latex. Hydrogel can also be permeated with lubricants, stimulants, and anti-disease chemicals for added effectiveness. One type of hydrogel condom has even been developed that has an antioxidant that enhances male sexual pleasure.

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Hydrogel materials may revolutionize condom design

3. Super-thin condoms that will be vastly thinner than the standard latex condom. The super-thin condoms would also be stronger and more flexible than the current latex types.

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Condom warriors: but who gets to field test? 

4. Human-skin mimicry. Modern technology will be used to engineer condoms that have the same properties as highly-textured human skin. These condoms will also be infused with nitric oxide, a chemical supposedly able to stimulate arousal in both men and women. Nitric oxide supposedly could assist in promoting erectile function.

5.  A “unisex” internal condom that could be used by both men and women. It could also be used for both vaginal and anal intercourse. Until now, the traditional condom has never technically been “approved” for safety during anal sex.

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The unisex condom:  looks like an accordion, feels like one too

6. One group has focused on devising faster and easier ways of putting on a condom. The best idea here seems to be a condom that would be put on much like a “Band-Aid” strip. One prototype can be put on using only one hand, and in less than two seconds (the “Zeus Ultra-Sensitive Instant-On”).

7. One team in India has focused on developing an “eco-friendly” condom that would be less harmful to the environment. This “green” condom, because of its biodegradable qualities, would supposedly get wider distribution in urban areas.

Readers will have to decide for themselves as to which of the proposals above has the best chance of wide adoption. My personal opinion is that the focus should be on: (1) the super-thin types of condoms, combined with a faster and improved method of putting it on; and (2) the “hydrogel” type of condom that mimics human skin and can be permeated with liquids or other substances. I don’t see any future in a “green” condom; the last thing that men will be thinking about in the heat of the moment is whether something is environmentally friendly.

Looking at the proposals above, one can see the increased level of attention being paid to the female condom. Invented in 1987 by Danish doctor Lasse Hessel, it was long the red-headed stepchild of the prophylactic world. It first made its appearance in the US in 1993 to decidedly mixed reaction. The first prototype was a long polyurethane pouch, with flexible rings on either end as an aid to stability once inserted into the vaginal canal.

For years, the female condom went nowhere. Women hated the idea of it, and most men never knew it existed.  ven today, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has even seen a female condom.

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The female condom:  facing an uphill battle

There were good reasons for the female condom’s unpopularity. Critics have cited the high cost of the condom (about five times as much as the standard condom), and the excessive regulatory hurdles that had to be overcome with such a unique product. But cultural reasons played a role as well. The female condom depended on women taking the initiative in safe sex, and this was a role that most (Western) women were unwilling to assume.

The device did enjoy some success in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. From 2007 to 2010, the number of female condoms distributed globally rose from 25 million to 50 million. For all its faults, the female condom has found a niche.

Why was the female condom more popular in the Third World than in the West?  The likely reason is that in many traditional societies, men simply refuse to use condoms. In some places in sub-Saharan Africa, a female’s insistence that a male wear a condom can lead to domestic violence. With these realities, there is an obvious incentive for women in poorer countries to take their own initiatives in matters of sexual hygiene.

But as discussed above, some of the current research being done is focusing on ways to enhance the appeal of the female condom.  My personal opinion is that such efforts will not amount to much in the West. The increased cost of the female condom, their requirement for female initiative in their use, and their lack of availability will ensure their marginalization for the foreseeable future.

Research efforts are better expended on improving the standard male condom, which, for better or for worse, is likely to be with us for another 400 years.  The sexual urge is probably the strongest of all human urges, and any attempt to improve condom engineering must take this truth into account. Social truths also need to be taken into account. Western women have (at this point) rejected the female condom, preferring to leave prophylactic initiatives in the hands of men. It is unlikely that any amount of marketing will change this.

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