HIV/AIDS: The female condom showdown

Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN
A flotation device?
JOHANNESBURG, 30 November 2012 (PlusNews) - Introduced more than 15 years ago, the female condom has gotten a bad rap, with some comparing it to having sex with a plastic bag, while many others still don't know about the only female-controlled HIV prevention method available.

Its uptake and distribution have been outpaced by traditional male condoms: according to a recent UNAIDS report, only one donor-funded female condom was available for every 10 women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa last year. Even male condom distribution stood at a paltry nine per every man of the same age in the region.

As new versions of the female condom, or femidom, continue to be developed, IRIN/PlusNews asked one couple to test the newer FC2 female condom, which is said to be quieter and less expensive to produce than the original FC1 female condom, and its newer rival, the Chinese-produced Cupid. The two products are the only female condoms that have been prequalified by the World Health Organization. Prequalification is a service provided by the global health body to test the safety, quality and efficacy of medicinal products before they are released to the public.

She said

"I’d only ever used a female condom once. I remember application being tricky, awkward and involving something akin to the one-legged perching stance you assume when you first start using tampons as a girl - when the idea of having to stick your fingers up ‘there’ is simultaneously weird, gross and frightening. You imagine trips to the emergency room in some horribly embarrassing scene and having to admit to a nurse that you got it all wrong and need help to correct ‘the situation’.

“This time, I was pleasantly surprised. Application times for both the FC2 and the Cupid were roughly the same, and nearly equal to the time it takes to put on a male condom, but not without some serious preparation.

“The FC2 has six, relatively easy steps. The best part: there are pictures, which makes everything easier... But packed onto half of the Cupid’s purple, hulking pack are no fewer than 10 steps. Each step is explained in anywhere from two to four lines, accompanied by an itsy-bitsy picture, which in some cases also contains text you’d need a magnifying glass to read. Before using the Cupid, I took about five minutes to study the packet - after literally having to find my glasses. I put them on the bedside table by the Cupid in case I needed a quick refresher before use.

Photo: Lourenço Silva/PlusNews
New and improved?
“Actually inserting the Cupid was intimidating. This new version features a new circular sponge at the end, about the size of the top of a cool drink can. Intimidating doesn’t cover it. Actually, when we pulled it out, my partner actually said, ‘Whoa, that is not attractive,’ which is always what a girl wants to hear in compromising positions... I felt like my face was frozen in a really attractive ‘am I doing this right?’ look.

“I took a brief second to wonder how you’d pack more than one Cupid into your handbag - the thing is huge. I actually laughed out loud upon its removal because it looked like a really tiny flotation device.

“To be honest though, once the Cupid was where it was supposed to be, it was leagues above the FC2 in feeling. But I couldn’t help focusing on making sure either femidom was where it should be during sex. I figure this is something you’d get over with practice, but it didn’t inspire a lot of position changes. And neither is it especially pretty - there’s still the outer ring hanging about - but it was still a far cry from a plastic shopping bag. There, I said it.

“My verdict: I still prefer traditional condoms, but then again, I don’t have to argue about condom use with my partner. Lucky girl.”

He said

“I was initially excited by trying out a new form of contraception, but with some heavy scepticism. The original was awkward to put on, and it’s a bit anxiety provoking because you don’t have the control you have with a male condom, which fits better to the body. Actually, it’s kind of scary in that way, even though you know they’re effective.

“With both condoms, it felt like there was more room for error than with male condoms. We read with the Cupid that you have to be careful about the penis going between the condom and the vagina. It makes me wonder if you could also have that problem with the original.

“Although the FC2 looks a lot better than the Cupid, it feels like FC2 skimps on lube. It’s really dry and because of that, it sticks to you the whole time. It kind feels like you’re having sex with a glove - not that I know what that feels like.

''It feels like you're having sex with a glove''
“With the Cupid, in some ways you feel freer as a guy, without having something strapped to your penis. You might have a bit more freedom - being a man - with the feeling of the female condom, but you have more freedom to do stuff like change positions when wearing the male condom.”

“I couldn’t feel the sponge [of the Cupid]. I know people have said it’s supposed to add something in terms of feeling, but I’m not 100 percent convinced.

The verdict

“We’d pick the Cupid over the FC2 any day, but won’t be moving to female condoms any time soon. Well, if we could even find them.”


Theme (s): Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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