In the unexpected-pregnancy comedy Knocked Up, Seth Rogen and his crew of infantile pot-smoking slackers devise an ingenious plan. It’s a soft-core celebrity porn website that tells its subscribers in what movies they can see their favorite actresses naked, and how far into those movies they have to watch. Brilliant, right? Except that some other site already came up with the idea. Faced with this shocking realization, Seth Rogen’s character takes a hit from his bong, leans back, and tries to comfort himself: “Just because this site exists doesn’t mean our site won’t work, necessarily. Good things come in pairs, man. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Deep Impact and Armageddon. Wyatt Earp and Tombstone.”
I couldn’t agree more. Great things always come in pairs. Paces and Olde Club. Electricity and magnetism. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson. Mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. George Bush and Dick Cheney. Baja Fresh and Qdoba. Burritos dos Manos. Breasts.
And this brings us to this week’s topic: Male condoms and female condoms. People are probably more familiar with the former than the latter. What’s a female condom? Here’s the fact sheet, courtesy of Planned Parenthood. The female condom (also marketed as “The Reality Condom”) is a barrier method of birth control that also reduces the risk of many STIs. With proper use, it can reduce the chance of pregnancy to 5%. It is a polyurethane (plastic) pouch with rings on each end, one closed, one open. Unlike the male condom, which is worn on the penis, the female condom is inserted deep into the vagina prior to intercourse. The closed ring holds the pouch securely inside the vagina, and the other end remains open.
Like any form of birth control, the female condom has pros and cons. Some pros: it’s easy to obtain, it can be used by people allergic to latex, it has a soft and lifelike feel, and women can place it autonomously, allowing them to “share responsibility for preventing infection.” Some cons: it’s expensive (at $2.50 a pop), it may be difficult to use properly, it’s visible, and it’s noisy. This kind of debate can only be settled by a test run. Bone Doctor to the rescue!
The insertion of the female condom was fairly straightforward. Or so it appeared. I actually just sort of sat there watching, like a baby eagerly waiting for its mother to screw the cap on its bottle. If both partners get involved, female condom insertion can become part of foreplay. But this was our first time using a female condom, and my partner was more comfortable doing it herself. Once inserted, the thing did look a little strange, what with the fairly large outer ring hanging outside the vagina and all. It almost looked like the Sarlacc from Return of the Jedi: that monster made of sand and teeth living in the Great Pit of Carkoon and seen below. But appearances were hardly a barrier to enjoyment.
Intercourse began smoothly. Noise wasn’t noticeable, and the condom did have a “soft and lifelike feel” (with lots of lube!). But the feeling was almost too soft, too unrestrictive. The female condom doesn’t fit tightly the way a male condom does. As a result, my partner and I both felt a constant need to check that everything was properly in place. There were never any actual problems, and in particular, the condom never came close to falling out. But the entire time we felt like something was wrong. Eventually this became too distracting, and we decided to jump ship. We took out the female condom, put a male condom on me, and it was smooth sailing until orgasm.
Did we make a premature decision? Did we give the female condom the chance it deserved? This was the topic of our post-coital conversation. We agreed that we were sufficiently communicative to ensure careful and proper use. We also agreed that we were partly just prejudiced, and that a lot of our “operational concerns” were irrational. It’s simple, really. I’ve been using male condoms for the past seven years. This was my first time using a female condom. Obviously it was going to feel different. And different is scary.
On the other hand, irrational or not, my partner and I didn’t want to spend twenty minutes checking in with each other about whether the condom was working. We wanted to have enjoyable intercourse. Also, we had our operational concerns during low-activity-me-on-top intercourse, and I think we were both worried that getting any more adventurous position-wise, which we wanted to do, was just going to make us more concerned. (This actually has some justification: Lawson et al., 2003, showed that for couples using a female condom during heterosexual intercourse, increasing the intensity of intercourse increases the risk of semen exposure three-fold.)
Perhaps with more experience, female condoms would become just as comfortable, physically and psychologically, as male condoms. Also, I’m sure comfort varies couple by couple, so I encourage everybody to try the female condom at least once. As an example of such “inter-personal differences,” a cocky customer review on Amazon.com notes that “These condoms are extremely excellent for those gentlemen with huge penises.” Now, just to be clear, I’m more than comfortable with the size of my penis. But maybe I just don’t have what it takes size-wise to utilize all the benefits that female condoms offer. I’m okay with that.
But in the end, as long as male condoms work sufficiently well (which for me they do), the real question might be “Why switch?” One pro that I haven’t yet discussed is that of female autonomy. I once again defer to Knocked Up. The film’s primary plot line is that of Seth Rogan’s infantile pot-smoking slacker character unintentionally impregnating a woman during a one-night-stand. What went wrong? Miscommunication. She thought he was wearing a condom, and he wasn’t thinking about much of anything. Female condom to the rescue! Instead of assuming that he had put a condom on himself, she could have used a female condom herself, thereby ensuring that she was adequately protected. What’s the moral? Ideally, contraception and STI protection is a shared responsibility, and for some couples, female condoms may contribute to the realization of that ideal.