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Unexpected thrills
Kate Burt
September 02, 2005

The female condom has quite literally proved a lifesaver…and a thrill maker, writes Kate Burt

It was hailed as the biggest contraceptive revolution since the invention of the pill. "Johnny’s had a sex change," went the publicity strap-line, and in the eight months preceding its 1992 launch in Britain it had generated articles in the press and TV and radio features. There was a 1 million pound advertising campaign, which included a two-week neon-lit display on the famous Spectacolor board in London’s Piccadilly Circus, and people queued outside pharmacies to buy it. But 13 years on, British usage is so low that it registers as 0%, according the National Office of Statistics’ report on Contraceptive and Sexual Behaviour. How did the British fall so quickly out of love with the Femidom?

The answer may be that Britain never really loved it in the first place. The female condom may have seemed a good idea to most modern, emancipated women in 1992. But once they saw it up close – and tried using one – they weren’t so keen. The Femidom is a baggy, seven-inch pre-lubricated polyurethane tube designed to line the vagina. It looks like a cross between a pair of diaphragms and a male condom that might have been used as a water bomb. It can’t have helped that the Danish inventor, Dr. Lasse Hessel, originally intended it to be used as an incontinence sheath.

Newspaper headlines such as "Is that an amoeba between your legs?" weren’t helpful either. And let’s not forget the infamous "rustle", the noise that the Femidom made during sex.

Surprisingly, then, that it is precisely the female condom’s shape and modus operandi – as well as its funny rustle – that have helped reverse its fortunes. It might have not taken off in Britain, but in at least 80% of the 125 countries where the condom is sold, it’s huge news.

By the late 1990s, the product was in the hands of an American firm, the Female Health Company (FHC), and business was so bleak that it was on the verge of throwing in the towel. Then Mary Ann Leeper, the firm’s president, took the first of two phone-calls that would change everything.

"It was a woman called Anna, from Harlem, New York," recalls Leeper. "She said: "I just called to thank you for this. If I asked the man I live with to wear a male condom, he’d beat me up and throw me out. Me and my sisters, we use this and we thank you greatly,"

The second call came several months later, from a woman called Daisy at the Health Ministry in Zimbabwe. "She told me that …she had a petition signed by 30 000 women wanting us to bring the female condom to Zimbabwe," says Leeper.

Sniggering at the Femidom, it seemed, was a privilege only for those lucky enough to have a choice about whether to sleep with a man who wouldn’t wear protection. FHC subsequently struck a deal with the World Health Organisation to sell the female condom at a discount to education programmes in more than 80 developing countries, mainly those hit hardest by Aids.

Its reception was unprecedented. "It’s very hard to reverse negative preconceptions," says Anne Philpott, who worked for FHC, introducing the female condom into sexual health programmes for three years until last February.

"But in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I was working with female sex workers, their clients hadn’t heard of a female condom before. So there were no preconceptions, and rather than saying, "This is a condom, this is going to protect you," [the women) marketed it as a toy, allowing the client to insert it – a real thrill, because seeing a vagina up close, or touching one, is a huge taboo in Sri Lanka."

The design held a further unexpected thrill, as the plastic ring inside rubs against the tip of the penis during intercourse, intensifying the man’s orgasm. Subsequently the prostitutes started charging more for sex with a female condom. Suddenly, FHC had tapped into a whole new approach to marketing.

In Senegal, the condoms are sold with noisy "bine bine" beads; an erotic accessory that women wear around their hips. The rustle of the polyurethane during sex is now associated with the clicking of the beads – and so, a turn-on.

In Zimbabwe, where 930 000 of the 1 600 000 adults infected with HIV are women, a new word – kaytecyenza – has entered the vernacular to describe the "tickle" created by the inner ring rubbing against the penis. Women too are gaining extra pleasure from the condom.

In the developing world, the FHC’s strategy is to raise the quantity of female condoms sold from 10-million to 200-million – staggering when you consider that six to nine billion male condoms were bought and distributed last year in the developing world. As for the rest of the world, the issue now is money, says Leeper, and the FHC is looking for a commercial partner "committed to reproductive health".

With women accounting for 47% of all people living with HIV globally, and British teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates soaring, it would be nice to think that the Western world might take inspiration from the men of Sri Lanka, and instead of an amoeba, start seeing in the female condom "a beautiful, blooming lotus flower".

But that could take some time.

©Guardian Newspaper 2005

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