If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said a princess, doctor, or veterinarian. As it turned out, I became a sexual health researcher and educator - and now, thanks to a wonderful opportunity through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations program, I'm a female condom designer too. This opportunity to create a revolutionary, life-saving and pleasure-enhancing product is one I am enormously grateful for and don't take for granted.
My initial interest in condom design was sparked more than a decade ago while researching condom use and sexual health products, and teaching a human sexuality course at Indiana University. I became familiar with diverse condoms available worldwide and often spoke with women and men about safer sex here in the US and in countries like India, Kenya, and Argentina.
People told me what they liked and didn't like about condoms and these conversations inspired me to imagine new kinds of condoms that would solve these problems, provide more pleasure, and help more people to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STI).
Then last fall, a colleague with whom I had previously collaborated with on sexual health product innovation, Frank Sadlo, shared an idea he had for a female condom. In turn, I shared my ideas for a product that would better fit women's bodies while at the same time enhancing sensation during sex, ideas that had been brewing in my head since about 2003. Our ideas clicked and we started brainstorming and sketching together. Over lunches at FARM restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana, the Female Pleasure Condom™ was born. We decided to submit our idea to the Grand Challenges Explorations Round 12 focused on condom innovation that included attention to sensation.
The innovative female condom we designed has features to better interact with women's bodies, to be more intuitive to apply, and to enhance pleasure. After all, when people have sex, it's usually to feel closer and share mutual pleasure. Our product will improve couples' sexual experiences while still protecting them.
While many people have heard of female condoms (a type of condom worn inside a woman's vagina), far fewer have ever seen one; they account for less than 1% of condoms worldwide. Yet female condoms are a highly effective method of birth control and STI/HIV prevention. And remember: all condoms - whether male or female condoms - are the only devices we have that protect sexually active women and men from STI/HIV. Think about that: condoms are highly safe, effective, and work like superheroes to fight against HIV and unintended pregnancy. So why aren't more people using them? Or singing their praises around the world - especially to young people and newly single parents - and thanking partners for suggesting them, rather than finding reasons not to? After all, condoms can only do their superhero jobs if more people use them!
Given how widely available and effective male condoms are you might wonder why we even need female condoms. First, some men don't want to wear a condom on their penis. Although our research shows that sex, even with a condom, is generally highly pleasurable and arousing, some men worry that wearing a condom reduces sensation. Creating a more desirable female condom will empower women to feel more comfortable about their protection while also making sex feel better. With these advantages, a woman might prefer to be the condom wearer.
As with any new product, learning to use a female condom can take a little time and practice (this is true for male condoms too - no one is born knowing how to use condoms!). However, research shows that, once people learn how to use female condoms, they're more likely to use them. We're confident that by revolutionizing the female condom - making it fit a woman's body better and enhancing pleasure - we can help more people want to protect their sexual health while simultaneously improving sex.
To read more about the Gates Foundation's "next-generation" condom challenge, check-out this blog.