Pleasurable Female Condoms On the Drawing Board

LOS ANGELES—Yesterday, Bloomberg News took a substantial look at a project underway by sexual health researcher Debby Herbenick and product developer Frank Sadlo to create a female condom that is not only effective but pleasurable to use. A sexual health scientist at Indiana University, Herbenick and Sadlo have only been working on the female condom for less than a year, but last month's announcement that they were one of 11 condom projects chosen by billionaire Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation to receive $1.1 million in exploratory grants gave the project a serious shot in the arm.

"The aim," explain Natasha Khan and Ketaki Gokhale for Bloomberg, "is to improve on earlier female condoms with a product that’s easy to use and enjoyable to help protect women, who are disproportionally affected by sexually transmitted infections in developing countries."

Herbenick adds, “We hope that women can feel empowered. Female condoms gives women a choice to say: ‘Okay, if you don’t want to wear one, I will.’”

The prototype of the condom under development "will be made with typical male condom material—probably latex—but will be shaped and sized to better fit the vaginal anatomy," report Kahn and Gokhale. "It will likely come in foil packaging much like male ones, she said. Instead of gripping the penis, though, it would sheath the vaginal path, with a ribbed outside for better grip and texture."

It turns out the idea was more on Sadlo's mind than Herbenick's when they met for lunch last year over a grilled cheese sandwich and soup at Farm, a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana, past colleagues just looking to catch up. Because they both work in the sexual health field, the conversation eventually turned to work, which is when Sadlo mentioned an idea that had been on his mind.

“When he told me his idea for a female condom, I told him mine for male condoms,” Herbenick recalled in a telephone interview with Bloomberg. “We melded both. We’re both creative types and soon the conversation turned to sketching and to discussion about what was or wasn’t possible in terms of manufacturing.”

The idea to create a new type of female condom is not only exciting in terms of its potential global adoption, but also in terms of its potential economic impact. According to Bloomberg, "A more popular female condom could stoke growth in the overall market, projected to reach $6.6 billion in 2020 from $4.5 billion this year, according to a report published by Global Industry Analysts Inc. in May. Much of the focus has been on men’s condoms so far. Of the condoms provided by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, 95 percent were for men, according to a 2012 report."

Not mentioned by the Bloomberg writers or Herbenick is the potential a well-liked female condom could have on the adult industry, which is going through a protracted fight with government officials (and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation) over a porposed California state law that would mandate the use of condoms in adult productions. One of the main arguments used by opponents to any law that would enforce condom use is that consumers do not want to see condoms in movies, making their use economically problematic. Needless to say, a female condom, which could be put in place hours before actual intercourse and would presumable be less visible to the camera than its exterior cousin, would undermine that particular argument. It's unclear, however, whether other arguments regarding the potential for injuries from chafing following extended use of condoms would still apply to female condoms, and a female condom would of course have no impact on gay productions.

But it would presumably meet the legal definition of "barrier protection" used by the porposed law and one aspect of the development of a truly effective and pleasurable female condom that no one can deny is that the ready availability of such a product dramatically changes the conversation about condoms by placing the decision to use one literally into the hands of women.

Herbenick, who has been working in the sex research field for the 15 years, said of her project, “I’ve been very focused in my work on women’s sexual experience. To be making a real thing you can hold in your hand, help save lives and manage people’s sexual experience is beyond exciting.”

While her excitement is understandable and palpable, the road ahead is strewn with much more development as well as arduous and time-consuming approval processes. As explained by Bloomberg, "Typically, manufacturers must provide data on mechanical performance, viral penetration and contraceptive effectiveness. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration ranks female condoms as a class III medical device: generally the highest risk devices requiring the highest level of regulatory control."

“Wherever in the world you make it available, it’s a long process,” Herbenick added. “We need to prove that it protects against pregnancy and STIs. That it stays safe and doesn’t break or slip or get pushed inside the vagina. This initial grant of $100,000 is a wonderful introduction and gets us that early stage feedback from potential users, but it takes quite a lot more to get a contraceptive device on the market.”

Considering the massive potential for such a product, not only for regular women around the globe but also sex workers in and out of the adult entertainment industry, one can only hope that Herbenick and Sadlo, as well as all the others working in the field, are able to see their ideas through to fruition.