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What's the deal with the female condom?

Advocates trying to share the word about safe-sex method that's not so well-known

May 13, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

The excuses for not wearing a condom often sound like this: "I hate them." "They're too tight." "I don't have one."

In the face of such complaints, public health officials are pushing a relatively under-the-radar option to prevent consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

It's called the female condom, and it looks something like the male contraceptive only bigger. About 2 inches in diameter and 6 inches long, the female condom is made of nitrile, which is thinner than the latex typically used in male condoms. Billed as the only barrier method that can be initiated by a receptive partner, it can be inserted before vaginal or anal sex.

Lately, it has gained traction as a coalition of women and gaymen's healthorganizations in Chicago continue a campaign to bring the female condom to the masses. But the device faces uphill battles. Although the female condom has been around since 1993, some people don't know about it, what it looks like or how it's used. It's also pricier and more difficult to find in stores (other than sex shops) compared to male condoms. But supporters say its benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The female condom's biggest selling point, according to advocates, is that it allows the receptive partner to take charge.

"I felt really empowered knowing I was in control of protecting myself," said Melissa Janiszewski, 33, who lives in the South Loop. "We live in a culture where it's all dependent on the men" to use protection, she said. Janiszewski is the policy and community education coordinator for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Last month, members of the Chicago Female Condom Campaign promoted the barrier method by posting Facebook photos of people holding signs explaining why they like female condoms. Meanwhile, the Chicago-based Female Health Company has redesigned the packaging of the condoms to better compete with mass-marketed male condoms. And Chicago's Department of Public Health is aiming to give away 10 million male and female condoms combined this year. The FDA also approved a softer, less expensive version of the female condom in 2009.

Still, many young adults haven't been introduced to it at doctors' offices or student health clinics.

"Younger people … didn't know this is an option, it's not on their radar," said Mary Brewster, program coordinator of Pediatric AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative, which partners with the local condom campaign. "It's not as normalized as male condoms and not as readily available, which is really something we're trying to break down."

Even though the FDA has not approved use of the condom for anal sex, some healthcare organizations promote it as another form of protection for gay men.

Donte Smith, 26, learned about female condoms from his friends. He thought he couldn't use them at first because they are designed for women; he prefers them over male condoms. "They're so much comfy-ier and roomier than regular condoms," said Smith, who lives in Cragin and identifies as queer.

He said the packaging can be intimidating and a turnoff to men because it says the word female. "A lot of queer and gay men need to know they have another option, they have choices when it comes to safe sex."

It's not uncommon for young people to be unfamiliar with the female condom, said Debby Herbenick, sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University. "At least in my experience when I teach about contraceptives, the general perception is it's unusual, or weird, or they have never seen one," she said.

Availability, though, is the biggest challenge to changing that. Community organizations such as the Center on Halsted and STD clinics give out the condoms free of charge, but few retail stores stock them. Outside of Walgreens, which last year started selling the condoms in select stores, they're mostly available at sex shops and clinics. Planned Parenthood sells them for $1 apiece to people without insurance while male condoms go for a quarter. Retail outlets price female condoms at about $7.99 a three-pack, compared to $6.99 for a three-pack of most male condoms.

The demand for female condoms hasn't been high at the Early to Bed sex shop in Edgewater, for example. "It is something that we sell comparatively so few of compared to any other safer sex device that we have," said owner Searah Deysach. She points to cost as a big reason.

Sarah Sloane, 42, manager of the Pleasure Chest in Lakeview, cites cost concerns as well.

"It's not my primary barrier, but I do like to lean on it especially when I have a partner that may need different kinds of sensation to enjoy himself," she said. "If I have a regular partner and we're having sex two to three times a week, that adds up really fast."

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