A few months ago, I bought condoms for the first time. After a half hour in CVS flipping over cartons and squinting at product descriptions—I'd been on the pill for years, so I was new to this—I went with a pack of Trojan Pure Ecstasy ("FEELS LIKE NOTHING'S THERE!" it said on the box). When my husband and I tried it out, we were disappointed. I hated feeling it inside me, hated the smell of latex that lingered between my thighs afterward. My husband said the condom felt baggy in some areas yet uncomfortably tight around the base of his penis (the condom's tapered base is meant to prevent slippage). As was the case with any condom he'd ever used, it also dulled any pleasurable sensations.
The experience only confirmed what we both already knew: Sex with a condom is as awesome as eating candy with the wrapper on. We're in good company; according to a 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, 1 in 4 acts of vaginal intercourse in the US involve condoms, and those who say condoms reduce pleasure during intercourse are less likely to use them.
But there are also nearly 20 million new STI cases occurring every year in the US, and the condom is the only non-abstinence contraception method effective against STIs. We live in an age when we land rockets on platforms in the ocean and perform penis transplants, so why hasn't someone figured out how to make condoms feel good? There haven't been any major innovations in condom design since Durex created the first pre-lubricated condom in 1957. But change is, ah, coming, as evidenced by new technology that came out this month, and more promising options on the horizon.
In November 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation distributed $100,000 grants for researchers to develop a better condom. "Quite simply, condoms save lives," a press release stated, "but new thinking is needed to ensure that men and women around the world are using them consistently and correctly to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections."
After weeding through 953 applications, the foundation awarded grants to 26 applicants. Among them was Richard Chartoff, a polymer scientist at Oregon State University, who developed an idea for ultra-thin condoms made from polyurethane elastic polymers that respond to body heat and conform to the penis's shape. "It's stronger," he claims. "And about eight percent of the population are allergic to the latex used in most condoms, so it's hypoallergenic too."
Charles Powell, inventor of the Galactic Cap condom prototype, is among the many people whose grant applications were rejected. The inspiration for his design came from the treatment he receives due to suffering from the nerve disease multifocal motor neuropathy. He receives his medicine through a port secured to his chest by an FDA-approved dermal adhesive, Tegaderm, which he implemented in the Galactic Cap design. After raising funds through Indiegogo and many cycles of trial and error, Powell placed two pieces of polyurethane together to create a cap that, when placed on the head of the penis, effectively captured semen.
Powell hopes his product will be a solution for those who can't enjoy sex with a condom: "Guys are forced to choose between using something they hate, or not using anything at all—there's no in-between." And having sex with the Galactic Cap feels just as good as using no condom at all. When my husband and I tried it out, the material was so thin that it was barely noticeable during intercourse.
But there are still some kinks to be worked out: Even though we diligently followed the illustrated instructions, we didn't achieve a complete seal—something revealed when my husband pulled out and noticed a small bit of semen dribbling down his shaft. If I hadn't already gotten an IUD, I would've been hyperventilating at the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy. "A condom has to be stupid simple, for everyone to use," my husband accurately observed.
And that's before he tried to take it off. "It was really on there, and it's a really sensitive part of the body. I almost just left it on." In the end, the Galactic Cap is likely meant for monogamous couples, since it doesn't provide full coverage of the penis (covering only the head and leaving the shaft bare); indeed, its packaging asserts it's for contraceptive use only.
For those looking for protection from pregnancy and STIs, there's the HEX condom, developed by luxury sex toy company LELO after its customers clamored for a condom that felt just as good against the skin as its silky-soft vibrators. The HEX's design originated from a fairy tale from company founder Filip Sedic's childhood, "The Peasant's Wise Daughter," in which a young woman wraps herself in a fish net after being told to come to the king's castle "naked nor clothed."
"The hexagonal net design effectively holds together the condom," Sedic explains, "so we were able to make the majority of the condom's surface very thin without forfeiting strength. We radically changed the condom's performance just by manipulating the structure."
Indeed, with the HEX, my husband and I had our most positive condom experience to date. The fit felt good, and the hexagonal design gripped his penis without squeezing it. My husband's sensations were less dulled than usual, too, since it was the thinnest traditionally shaped condom we used. (At 0.055mm, it's still thicker than other condoms, but those super thin ones were too tight on him and started rolling down before we could even proceed.)
But wait, there's more: This fall, FitKit from ONE Condoms will bring 56 different sizes to the market, allowing men to measure their penis length and width to determine the best size for them. "Most complaints from condom users are related to fit," claims Jared Maraio, the senior director of brand strategy for ONE Condoms. "This is going to solve a huge number of problems for a great number of people."
Maraio further explains that there were previously no testing standards in place for condoms significantly smaller or larger than what's on the market, since condoms are tested by seeing how much air they contain before bursting. These standards had to be developed before my ONE condoms could be cleared for sale in the US.
Smaller operations have more difficulty getting vetted: Chartoff, the Gates grant recipient, says his team hopes to find a backer to provide funding to make it through the approval process, since the grant money "wasn't enough to actually implement a commercial product." Per the Gates Foundation's senior program officer of prevention and treatment implementation, Papa Salif Sow, the grants were the first phase of an ongoing initiative, with those who made significant progress invited to apply for a larger grant of $1 million.
Those larger grants have been awarded to two parties so far: Ron Frezieres, director of the California Family Health Council, who has been developing a polyethylene condom, and Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy, a researcher at the Indian company HLL Lifecare Ltd., who is incorporating graphene into existing natural rubber latex condoms. Both projects are expected to move forward in the next two years.
For now, though, Sedic believes it's ridiculous that condom consumers are still forced to choose between pleasure and safety, and he hopes to fill that void imminently. "You wouldn't go out without shoes," he says. "Why would you have sex without a condom?"