The first time I saw a female condom was the last time I ever thought about using one. The big ring and the bag-like structure seemed not only aesthetically unpleasing, but it also looked like a pain in the butt to insert. And besides being expensive, it’s saggy structure looked noisy and not-so-pleasurable. It just seemed all around un-sexy.
Introduced in the ’90s, the female condom was launched as a new way to combat HIV/AIDS and other STIs, especially in developing nations. Presumably more effective since they cover more skin, it has historically failed in terms of distribution and marketing, probably because of the reasons I listed above.
However, in recent years, the female condom has gotten a make-over. No more strange-looking plastic ring– the new ones’ insertion is more akin to a tampon. There’s also the addition of a softer, less crinkly material and adhesive dots to keep it in place and also to help it expand with the body. But I still have to wonder: can the female condom ever be sexy or pleasurable?
Health workers, as part of The Pleasure Project in India say yes! Taking criticisms such as mine into mind, last month at a New Delhi youth festival aimed at raising awareness for sexual health (dubbed Project 19), volunteers led onlookers in a game of female-condom-first-impressions, among other activities. Combatting the idea that safe sex can be unsexy, especially in the case of the female condom, they instead promote it as fun and pleasurable, and in some cases, as an "erotic accessory."
"Talking about disease and fear haven’t worked very well. People believe they are in a safe relationship and that disease does not apply to them," said Arushi Singh, a resource officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which trains health educators in South Asia. "But pleasure," she said, "applies to everybody."
Data suggests that this approach could work, especially among sex workers who, according to the National Aids Control Organization, have often persuaded clients to consent to protection using the pleasure rationale. Since India’s expanding its female condom distribution among 200,000 sex workers, could marketing this way mean women and men will buy into the female-condom-as-sex-toy pitch? Another advocate for this approach illustrates the pitch:
We tell the sex workers to have fun with the female condom. We tell them, "You spend money on makeup, jewelry, jasmine flowers for your hair. This female condom is another ornament for you."
It’s all good and well, but I can’t help feeling that this approach is almost inappropriate given the gravity of the situation– 2.4 million Indians were living with AIDS/HIV in 2007, which seems to merit a more serious discussion than ornamentation, especially when it comes to the impact that this has on women’s lives, both those currently doing sex work (which adds a whole other dimension of gravity) and those who are not.
But the pleasure platform has one distinct and very positive advantage: women who are denied power not only in terms of birth control decisions but in sex on the whole can only begin to reclaim it by talking about pleasure, and the easiest way to do that is in a casual and engaging way. And as the only female-initiated means of preventing both pregnancy and STIs, the female condom is still the most preferable tool for promoting such an approach to safe sex. The pleasure platform reminds us that sex doesn’t always have to be about wresting control back for the sake of safety and for fear of the consequences. Instead, it can be a platform for reclaiming agency.