VIENNA, 23 July 2010 (PlusNews) – I’m so used to, and bored by, the bland white packaging that carries the underused female condom that at this year’s International AIDS Conference, I walked past several press releases and demonstrations of it without much interest. So it was with some surprise that I came upon a stand at the Global Village where a young woman was demonstrating the use of not one, but two versions of the female condom I had never seen before.
As it turns out, not only are these products not that new, there are more than just two of them out there. One of the brands, called VA w.o.w, has been available for several years, and although it doesn’t have World Health Organization (WHO) approval, it is certified for sale in the European Union. Made from latex, it features a small sponge instead of the usual inner ring and is much shorter than the FC2 condom which has WHO approval and has been widely distributed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Another goes by the name ‘The Woman’s Condom’ – they may need to fire their creative people – and is still undergoing clinical trials. It has no second ring and looks a little like a funnel with a tampon on the end of it. According to its manufacturers, it was made in consultation with women and couples “to identify features that promoted comfort and ease of use”.
Something called the ‘Natural Sensation Panty Condom’ – seriously, I’m not making this up – consists of a thong with a replaceable panty-liner containing a condom made of synthetic resin. The condom is inserted by the man’s penis, and the panty itself can be reused with another condom.
I could go on, but my point is that if so many female-controlled devices for preventing HIV exist, why is it we don’t know about or have access to them? HIV prevention experts are always talking about giving women more options, so it’s disappointing that in my region of East Africa, women still have only one female condom to choose from.
The FC2 has not been well received by East African women. The Ugandan government pulled its predecessor, the FC1, from the market because of low demand – women complained it was smelly and noisy. The FC2 has eliminated both these problems and following a re-launch, a test group of women gave the new one the thumbs-up, but it would seem that Ugandan women are still not keen on it. During a recent male condom shortage, officials from the Ministry of Health offered the female condom as an alternative – there was clearly no shortage of them at government stores.
Marketed correctly, the female condom could do much better than it has. In East Africa, adverts for male condoms are bold, sexy, and often endorsed by popular public figures. They are called Trust, Protector, Shield, and are sold everywhere, from pharmacies to supermarkets and makeshift kiosks outside nightclubs.
One daring series of ads for the Trust brand of condoms in Kenya featured suggestive images of hot – usually shirtless – men. When was the last time you saw a spicy commercial promoting the female condom? And aside from the clinical sounding names and the dull-as-dishwater packaging, how many places do you see female condoms available for sale?
The male condom is not the sexiest device on the planet – never mind the need to interrupt sex to fiddle with packaging and then put it on – but thanks in part to proper product placement and aggressive social marketing, the Kenyan government reports that condom use among young men having sex with casual partners has grown from 52 percent in 2003 to 75 percent today.
It’s not rocket science. If you want to sell the female condom, sex it up.