Expanding the Female Condom Market

By Christine |

Guest post by Audacia Ray, International Women’s Health Coalition

Demand for newer and better devices that protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections is constant — partly due to the fact that the process of development, testing and approval takes forever, and partly because what’s on the market often leaves something to be desired.

The polyurethane female condom (FC) has been available for 15 years now, and it’s gotten a lot of mixed reviews. It is the only barrier method available that is designed for female initiation, but it’s three times as expensive as a male condom, unwieldy, and can squeak during use (not sexy). Male condoms, of course, have their imperfections; loss of sensation and ill-fit are chief among the complaints.

This past December, the new and improved FC2 was recommended to the FDA for approval (see OBOB post). It should be on the market in the United States within the next year. The FC2 is made of a latex alternative, which is by all accounts a thinner, quieter, lower-cost material than polyurethane.

However, there are also other prototypes out there that are being actively tested and promoted outside of the United States, especially in Africa. In early December Jen Wilen, a program officer for Francophone Africa at the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), ventured to the 15th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Dakar, Senegal, where she got to check out two different prototypes for new female condoms.

One of these new condoms is the VA w.o.w. Condom Feminine (pictured left), a latex female condom made by the same company that produces the popular Inspiral male condom, which is extra roomy around the glans of the penis to increase male pleasure.

The most striking feature of the w.o.w. (worn-of-woman) FC is that it has a soft sponge where FC and FC2 has an internal ring. The sponge acts as an anchor to hold the female condom in place. The w.o.w has been available in Southern Africa since 2004 and is also available in the UK.

The second female condom (pictured right) was designed by a Seattle-based company called PATH, which has a contract to move forward with making the device available in China by 2010.

This FC is made of nitrile and has something of a parachute effect — its applicator capsule dissolves once it is inside the vagina and the FC expands to its full size.

This particular version is being tested through Family Health International — the packaging warns that it is “limited by law to investigational use only. This product may fail during use and must not be relied upon for contraception or sexually transmitted disease prevention.”

One of IWHC’s partners, Society for Women Against AIDS in Africa, Cameroun Chapter (SWAAC), has been a major advocate for the female condom. They regularly host sexuality education sessions — some in very public places (see below and here) — that teach women and men about how to use the female condom.

Audacia Ray is program officer for online communications and campaigns at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

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9 Comments

  1. Vicky says:

    The female condom is like the electric car. It makes perfect sense, the technology is ready to go, but the powers-that-be refuse to market it. Why oil companies would resist the electric car is clear, though, while the reasons for resisting the female condom are more complex. Clearly, it is caught up in assumptions about female sexuality and power — but that would never be stated so bluntly.

  2. Jennifer Doughty says:

    Great post and photos! Thanks for sharing this. We don’t hear enough about the advocacy work being done around the FC in developing countries.

  3. mrs spock says:

    As someone who cannot use hormonal birth control for medical reasons, and has always used condoms, I can see plenty wrong with the female condom, and none of it has to do with female power issues or lack of marketing. The first FC plain sucked. It was big, unwieldy, had a ring doodad that hung outside, and squeaked like all get out. That thing went straight in the trash.

    The newer prototypes still appear to have a ring portion on the outside, or at least a large portion that hangs out- how annoying, at least to me. Some women, as well, may not, uh, enjoy having a spongey pillow absorbing a lot of the pressure on the cervix. And the one that has a dissolving bit on the applicator? I would be very leery of anything that dissolves in such a vascular mucus membrane like the vagina. What exactly is that, that is dissolving? I don’t see anything on the links.

    We’re perfectly happy with the old fashioned male condoms. Nothing here convinces me to try a different method.

  4. pixie says:

    I would personally LOVE to see a female condom that would work, well. We have been having “birth control” issues around here for some time. There is something about everything we’ve tried (allergies, mainly, but other things as well that I’m not describing in detail on the internet LOL) that has made it completely impracticable. A FUNCTIONING fc might be worth the time :)

  5. Audacia Ray says:

    It’s important to note that neither of the two female condoms in this post are going to be available in the US any time soon – they are still very much in prototype mode. The VA w.o.w. FC also apparently hasn’t been doing too well in trials, while the PATH FC is making its way toward a debut in 2010.

    @mrs spock – the FC2, which is making its way to FDA approval in the US, has been designed to address the squeak factor, plus it is made out of a thinner material and should be easier to use. It still has the external ring though, and I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. I don’t know exactly what the dissolving material is on the PATH FC though.

    There are definitely things about the FC that are just not all that awesome, but there are lots of things about the male condom that aren’t all that awesome either. Barriers for protection against pregnancy and infection are going to continue to be necessary however, and the FC offers a different option for women who have male partners who for a variety of reasons can’t or won’t wear a male condom.

  6. Bonysox says:

    I’ve tried various types of condoms and determined that nothing currently available in the US is a good option. I’ve encountered malfunctions with the standard male condom and with the Reality Female Condom anywhere from breakage to the thing getting stuck inside. We need a contraceptive that’s easy to use and truly effective at preventing pregnancy & STDs. The WOW appears to have the best design option I’ve seen so far, despite the ring on the outside. I’d like to see manufacturers break away from latex and polyurethane. They should design something that isn’t gender specific and has more chance of preventing STDs. The thing could ideally be worn by a woman or a man and cover more area that comes into contact during sex. Once something like that is readily available, then I think all the others would become obsolete. We can’t truly promote safe sex with the means we currently have available.

  7. Bamboo says:

    Why would any woman prefer to wear a FC instead is beyond me. I found out about the FC condom in my college where free condoms are given out. Out of curiously, I took a packet and in a class of 6 women, 1 female lecturer and a male student, we opened it and had a open discussion. The first thing that the male student said was “isn’t it much easier to put a condom on man”. That really does sum it up. The process of inserting FC, whatever design it might be is simply not natural. All the female in the class questioned who the FC market is for? Since none us would prefer to put on a FC when there is a more natural and simple way of putting on a male condom. I also worry that the fact that FC is available, would it let to further abuse by man on demanding or forcing woman to wear the condom instead? Is society attempting to put all the responsibility put back to woman? Does woman now have to buy the condom and wear the condom to protect themselves? What is left for man to do is just enjoying the sexual pleasure. Lastly, I can not image that FC is invented by a female. If any woman thinks FC can give them more control and power, I asked them to re-think again. I am more than happy to hear different opinion to argue that FC is the way to go.

    • Kiki says:

      Unfortunately no type of birth control is perfect and many women struggle to find a method that is safe, effective, and easy to use. For some women, especially those with a partner who can’t or won’t wear a male condom, the female condom is a good option. And we agree with you that women shouldn’t carry all the responsibility for birth control! To find out what’s happening with potential new methods for men, check out the Male Contraception Information Project.

  8. Michelle says:

    Hope someone writes a damn good book on the option of women’s condoms. It’s needed in the 21st Century. I like the idea of the VA women’s condom with a sponge ring on the outside. Definitely no jarring on the cervix, and easier to insert. I hope the USA approves the design through the FDA.