A program that gave away 200,000 female condoms to women in Washington, DC prevented 23 HIV infections, according to a study published in the journal AIDS and Behavior. Why female condoms rather than the more common male variety? The study authors wrote, "It is critical that there are HIV prevention interventions entirely under the control of women, and female condoms are the only such woman initiated intervention currently on the open market." But will women actually use them?
Women I talked to were skeptical. Said one, "I wouldn't use a female condom unless I had to. I prefer contraception to be relatively discreet, aesthetically speaking — whether as unseen as an IUD or the Pill, as removed from the moment as a diaphragm, and/or as clingy and sort-of camouflaged as a male condom — and my perception of the FC is that it's far from aesthetically pleasing or discreet, due to the ring hanging out. " Another said that she thought they were less effective than male condoms (true, at least for preventing pregnancy), more expensive (also true), and difficult to find (true, although it may be getting easier). A third said, "I guess I wouldn't be opposed, but I have to admit I don't think I've ever spoken to someone who has" used one. She added that if someone she knew had used one and liked it, she might be more inclined to try.
Planned Parenthood is hoping to make that more likely. Leola Reis of Planned Parenthood Southeast told me some pluses of the method. First of all, she says the new Female Condom 2 is way better than the old version — it's made of nitrile rather than polyurethane, so it's pliable and warms with the body. And it has some advantages over the male condom. It covers more of the outside skin of the vulva, reducing skin-to-skin STD transmission risk. And Reis says it can even increase a woman's pleasure, because the outer ring can rub up against the clitoris during sex.
The biggest drawback, according to Reis: women don't know how to use it. But in a project in Atlanta, Planned Parenthood held trainings to teach 600 women how to use the method, and gave them goodie bags with three female condoms to take home. Then they surveyed those 600 women, plus 350 who hadn't done the training. 85.5 percent of the women who did the training said they'd consider using a female condom, compared with 57.3 percent of women who hadn't. And 51.3 percent of training participants said they'd rather use a female condom than a male one (just 18.1 percent of non-participants said the same).
So a little information can make a big difference. For instructions on how to use a female condom, plus an animated video, check out Planned Parenthood's site.