A few years back, on a visit to my doctor, he asked me what I was using for "family planning" (ugh). When I replied "condoms," the man was horrified. I mean, horrified. "Those are not very effective," he said, shaking his finger at me. "Oral contraceptives are much more reliable." I nodded and took the prescription, but the truth is I didn't entirely agree. In fact, I wasn't just being cavalier about my contraception; I had done my research. Condoms can be very effective birth control. Although the "typical use" failure rate that's often attached to condoms is 18%, when they're used correctly and used every time you have sex, their failure rate is about 2%. (The failure rate for oral contraceptives falls somewhere between 0.5 to 1%, again, when they are used consistently and exactly as directed.)
Unfortunately, one of the biggest strikes against condoms is that many people don't use them, at least not all the time. According to a survey of 10,000 customers conducted by pleasure product manufacturer LELO, 71% of people don't like to use condoms. And let's face it: Snapping on a rubber kind of feels like choking down a kale smoothie: You might not like it, but you do it because it's good for you. Combine this with some of the misinformation out there about condoms, and rubbers start to look pretty unappealing. So let's take a look at some of the reasons why they've gotten a bad rap - and why they just don't deserve it.
Misinformation About Benefits for STI Protection
Condoms are one of the only forms of contraception that protect against both pregnancy and STIs. Despite this very clear benefit in terms of sexual health, a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation released in 2003 found that many young people are misinformed about the health risks associated with unprotected sex, have misperceptions about STIs and HIV, and have incomplete information on safer sex practices, including the relative effectiveness of the condom versus other forms of birth control when it comes to preventing disease. Go figure; at least one-third of schools in the United States describe their sex ed curriculum as "abstinence only."
Plus, although the biggest group of condom users tends to be younger adults, research has shown that this group is most concerned about preventing pregnancy. So, when they use other forms of birth control, such as the pill, condoms tend to go out the window, putting them at great risk of contracting an STI. (You should totally read the study linked there. It's a really interesting stuff!)
Condoms do not provide perfect protection against STIs, particularly the ones that are spread by skin-to-skin contact, like herpes, HPV and syphilis. However, beyond abstinence or a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner, condoms are your best bet, and will significantly reduce the risk of STI transmission between partners. Of course, in order to get the full benefits, condoms need to be used "consistently and correctly," which brings me to my next point.
A Lot of People Don't Know How to Use a Condom
If you didn't get to watch your health teacher apply a condom to a banana in high school, listen up. Condoms aren't hard to use, but there is a right way and a wrong way to use one. And, apparently, a lot of people are not up to speed on the right way. This really matters, because while perfect condom use has a 98% success rate, imperfect use increases the risk of breakage, slippage and failure, and reduces the rate of effectiveness to about 82%.
According to a study that appeared in the journal Sexual Health in 2012, people make all kinds of mistakes when it comes to condom use, including:
- Putting it on too late
- Taking it off too early
- Unrolling it before putting it on
- Failing to leave space at the tip
- Putting it on inside out
- Failing to fully unroll it
- Exposing it to sharp objects
- Not checking it for damage
- Not using lube
- Using the wrong kind of lube
- Withdrawing incorrectly
- Reusing the condom
- Storing the condom incorrectly
Clearly, people need some education on how to wear a rubber. If condoms were always used correctly, they'd be a much more effective form of contraception and STI prevention. In other words, condoms should be much more reliable than they are because the vast majority of condom failures occur as a result of miseducation and human error. (Get some tips on how to get it right in 9 Things You Didn't Know About Putting on a Condom.)
The Feel Factor
Only about 10% of men in the U.S. and 5% of men worldwide use condoms as contraception. As I mentioned in the intro, research by LELO has found that 71% of people don't like to use condoms. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The fact that they are relatively absent in pornography - and even mainstream movies - is probably a factor. But most people just report that they don't like how they feel. In fact, research has found that both men and women dislike the feel of condoms. Another study reported that the most positive endorsement people could give for the condom was that they "didn't mind" using one. Many others, however, said they disliked the smell, the taste, the feeling and the inconvenience of using a condom.
OK, let me point out that I do not have a penis. However, I think it's important to note that LELO's survey also found that 86% of people had not changed the brand of condoms they use in the past year. Condoms are not a perfect form of contraception. No method is. But they're cheap and easy to find, so you may as well try out all the brands to make sure you're getting the best one for you and your partner. There's some evidence that fit is a factor here too. (Read Steamy, Sizzling ... Safe? 6 Ways to Make Condoms Sexy.)
Design and Fit
An amazing article that appeared in Slate last year examined why innovation just hasn't happened when it comes to condoms. It's the result of a fascinating array of reasons, none of which is especially sound. And the fact is that if someone is able to create a condom that people enjoy - one that they actually want to use - it could lead to much higher rates of condom use. And that, of course, would be a really good thing in terms of preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing STI transmission.
In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put out a challenge to designers to create the condom of the future. The winner would receive $100,000 in seed funding, plus up to $1 million more to further finance their projects. Unfortunately, we're still waiting to see any of those designs make it to market. As it turns out, getting a new, non-latex condom through FDA trials is an arduous process. Despite the hurdles, however, LELO has recently announced that it will be venturing into the condom market with a soon-to-be-released product called HEX.
The bottom line is that condoms are still an effective form of contraception and STI prevention. They're also cheap, readily available, free of side effects and relatively easy to use. What's not to love? Well, there are a few things, to be honest. Let's hope some new innovations are on the way to help address those drawbacks and make condoms a form contraception people actually want to use.