Enjoying the Condom of Today While Waiting for the Condom of the Future

When the “consent condom” was introduced last month, it made a minor media splash. The developers of this new condom, packaged in a box that required four hands to open, sought to place the concept of consent at the center of all sexual interactions.

Almost as soon as it grabbed its first headlines, however, the consent condom attracted criticism from multiple sources. Is consent an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-time agreement? Can’t consent be revoked? Do these condoms marginalize people with disabilities that preclude them from opening the box? Couldn’t a rapist force a victim to help open the box, or enlist the assistance of an accomplice? Could they be used as misleading evidence against claims of sexual assault?

With STD rates skyrocketing, more people need to learn how to get the most from condoms — the most protection, the most comfort, and the most pleasure.

Despite the negative reaction, the fact remains that the consent condom succeeded in one goal: provoking public dialogue about the complexity and primacy of consent. It isn’t likely to be a commercial success: Even if a few are sold as novelties, a condom that comes with built-in obstacles doesn’t seem destined for popularity. After all, if regular condoms were too tricky for the inept baby boomers on Seinfeld to master, a complicated gadget requiring four coordinated hands to spring loose probably isn’t going to be a breeze for millennials.

Nope, for condoms to gain more widespread popularity, they need to be saddled with fewer obstacles.

It might sound strange to wish that condoms were more widely embraced by the sexually active public. After all, they’re the third-most-common birth control method, beat only by the Pill and tubal ligation. But it’s the only birth control method that protects against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which makes it a must-have for any sexually active couple that is not trying to get pregnant — especially partners who are not mutually monogamous or haven’t already been screened for STDs.

Unfortunately, only around 1 in 3 sexually active adults uses condoms — a number that is too low, especially in light of today’s STD epidemic. The United States has the dubious honor of boasting the highest STD rates of all industrialized countries, and those rates have only been growing in recent years.

One of the most important things we can do to encourage condom use is dispel the myths surrounding them. For example, although Seinfeld was poking fun at its characters’ inability to navigate condom wrappers (millennials weren’t the first generation that had problems with “adulting”), it still helped perpetuate the myth that condoms are difficult to use. With some practice and experimentation, most people can develop the muscle memory necessary to unwrap and put on a condom — in the dark, even — in no time at all. And, when they are incorporated into foreplay, there is no reason for condoms to be considered a “disruption” to the mood.

Another widely held belief about condoms is that they reduce sensitivity or pleasure, but today’s condoms are made with very thin material, and sensitivity can be enhanced by pairing them with lubricant (“lube”) — both inside and outside of the condom. Lubricant makes condoms more slippery, increasing sensation by decreasing friction. Plus, it makes condoms less likely to break, boosting pregnancy and infection protection. (Never use oil-based products, such as Vaseline or coconut oil, with a latex or non-latex rubber condom, as they can degrade the material and decrease effectiveness. Use only water- or silicone-based lube with your condoms.)

Mythbusting is important, but despite their greatness, condoms can still stand to be improved — just like any technology! The next generation of condoms is being dreamed up by inventors and investors aiming to reinvent the humble sheath into a device that is more fun and easier to use. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is providing financial backing to researchers hoping to put some innovative and creative twists on the classic design.

One candidate is the hydrogel condom, which is being perfected by an engineer who normally works with 3D-printed organs and prosthetics. These condoms are made of materials similar to human tissues, with the hope that users will feel like they aren’t wearing anything at all. They’ll soon be tested in clinical trials, meaning that people will use them and report on their experiences, while researchers track the condoms’ effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and STD transmission.

Another Gates Foundation grant recipient is the self-lubricating condom, which has the goal of remaining lubricated throughout sex without the need to reapply lube. Rather than being made out of a novel material, like the hydrogel condom, these latex condoms have an additional coating that attracts and retains moisture, allowing them to stay slippery throughout sex. Testers found that these condoms were more slippery to the touch than latex condoms with lubricant applied, but further trials are necessary.

While we wait for the condom of the future, we still have easy access to the condom of now. And with just a few simple tricks and tips, we can learn how to use them properly and boost sensitivity with lubricant, and find condoms that are the right size and texture for us and our partners. Condoms are the best STD-prevention tool that sexually active people have at their disposal, and they are absolutely necessary to curb today’s sky-rocketing STD rates.

Condoms are available in Planned Parenthood health centers, as well as from some community health centers, drugstores, supermarkets, and vending machines. A Planned Parenthood health-care provider can teach you how to choose condoms that are right for you and your partner, and help you learn how to use them properly.