(Photo Credit to the Associated Press)

I read this week that a new, and improved, version of the female condom has been approved by the FDA. In addition to providing protection against conception and transmission of STIs, it is also the only “female-initiated barrier method” meaning that the woman has “control over its use”. At least in theory.

Despite the fact that the product has been on the market since the early 1990s, and despite the major hype surrounding its role in empowering women to protect themselves against HIV, the uptake of the product has been relatively low globally. Perhaps it has something to do with the brand names: Femidom, Femy, Preservativo Feminino, El Condon Femenino, and MyFemy?

Part of the problem has been price – the female condom is many more times more expensive than male condoms. But part of the problem is more complex and has to do with the acceptability of the product by the end user. Michael Reich and Laura Frost’s new book on access to technologies has a whole chapter devoted to all the things that went wrong with the introduction of the female condom. I have linked to the book (which is free to download in the spirit of access!) here. I quote from the book a passage on the condoms:

Certain technical characteristics of the female condom can give negative first impressions to some users and pose continuing barriers to end-user adoption. Some women consider the female condom to be large and bulky, aesthetically unappealing, prone to slippage and twisting during sexual intercourse, stiff in its internal rings, and difficult to insert, as well as unpleasantly noisy and smelly. Studies have shown a high frequency of misuse and low levels of acceptability on the first attempt at use. Following repeated attempts, user confidence and satisfaction increase, as do users’ skill at correct insertion and removal. Without adequate training and counseling, women may lose interest after initial failed attempts or may expose themselves to risks of STIs and unplanned conception through mishandling of the female condom.

It seems the newer version will be cheaper and less “squeaky” but will this solve its problems?

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