Female condoms?

infographic about condoms

Click on infographic for larger view. Photo by Debby Herbenick


It’s no secret that Debby Herbenick, co-director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, wants people to enjoy sex. She’s written many books about the topic, including “Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered — for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex.”

A sexual health researcher at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington, she’s also a proponent of safe sex. Her work in this area led to her being a winner of the Grand Challenges Explorations, a global health initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With an initial grant of $100,000 for her research project, “Development and Testing of the Female Pleasure Condom,” she and her collaborator, if successful, will be in the running for a follow-up grant of up to $1 million.

Herbenick told Fast Company:

“Female condoms, generally speaking, are still in early stages of innovation. There’s a lot of room for people to be creative and to work on designs, methods of insertion, and sensations. . … The condom has textural ‘cues’ at the front end, making application easier in the dark.”

As reported by Indiana Public Media:

The Gates Foundation has funded research into condom design before, but Herbenick says all of the designs were for male condoms. The new funding aims to provide women, especially those in developing countries, with additional alternatives.

“Many men just refuse to use condoms, so if a woman’s partner refuses to use a condom or complains about a condom, she can say ‘I’ll use one,'” Herbenick says. “It provides a female-initiated or a female-controlled option.”

Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick, Ph.D.

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D.

Frankly, female condoms were a mystery to me, so I asked Herbenick if she could provide an FAQ in case reporters also weren’t familiar with them. Here is what she provided.

Q: What is a female condom and how is it different from a male condom?

A: Female condoms are condoms that are inserted in a woman’s vagina and partially cover part of her vulva (the external genitals). Male condoms are worn on a man’s penis, covering the shaft of his penis.

Q: Why are they necessary?

A: Many women and men wish to protect themselves and their partners from unintended pregnancies and from sexually transmitted infections (STI), including HIV. Using either a male or female condom during intercourse can reduce these risks.

Q: Why haven’t they caught on in the U.S. and elsewhere? Are they even sold here?

A: Female condoms have not been widely marketed or sold in the US, although they are available through the Internet and in some pharmacies. In the past few years, a few cities have done a particularly good job focusing efforts on educating people about the female condom in the U.S. Many people have simply never heard of the female condom, but are excited when they do. The female condom is an excellent option for women who wish to feel more in control of their reproductive and sexual health, and for partners for whom male condoms are not comfortable or preferred.

Q: Are they popular elsewhere in the world?

A: Yes, female condoms are more widely used in some countries compared to the U.S.; however, male condoms are still far more widely used globally. Female condoms are relatively new.

Q: Don’t condoms inhibit pleasure, rather than increase it?

A: Our research suggests that sex, with or without a condom, is rated as pleasurable, arousing and satisfying. Both male and female condoms are excellent options for safer, pleasurable sex. There has been considerable innovation in male condoms over the past decade, and now many different kinds of male condoms are available that reduce pregnancy and STI risk and that offer features to promote pleasure. We hope to move female condoms forward with innovation as well.

Herbenick is collaborating with Frank Sadlo, an independent consultant with a focus on efficiency, consumer product innovation and international product standards.

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