Vibrating, Bluetooth-enabled, custom-fit and applicator friendly? Yep, the condom game has changed.
The latest in condom innovations is the VA w.o.w. Condom Feminine, a latex female condom that comes equipped with a miniaturized bullet vibrator in its frame base. Sitting snugly against the clitoris, the vibrating condom, created by IXu, would be the first-ever condom designed with both women's safety and pleasure in mind.
Sound a little sci-fi? It's just one of the many industrious takes on the condom underway as the focus on contraception turns to enhancing pleasure. From creations like foldable condoms to $100,000 grants for condom innovation by the Gates Foundation, we're finally rejecting the status quo in favor of condoms that take advantage of technology — and feel really, really good.
Much-needed improvements: A vibrating condom may sound like a fun plaything, but the need for innovation is pressing. Male condoms have a 98% effectiveness rate for preventing pregnancy when used correctly, but are hardly used.
The 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that only 1 out of 4 acts of vaginal intercourse are condom-protected in the United States, and condom use sharply declines with age. Why? We hate them, for their tightness, lack of feeling and rubbery scent; a 2007 study found that men who associated them with lack of pleasure are less likely to use them.
What's worse, condoms haven't actually changed much since they first hit the market around 1920.
"The rolled condom first appeared commercially before the Wright Brothers' first airplane and hasn't changed since," Mark Bardwell of Origami Condoms, one of the recipients of the Gates Foundation grants, told Mic. "Rolled condoms are primarily designed for protection and cannot deliver the level of pleasure consumers require. The missing component in the condom market is pleasure."
The push for real pleasure: Bardwell and his team's solution, the Origami, looks like an accordion for the penis, with fluted construction that allows the condom to contract and expand over a penis. Made of silicone, the Origami's dynamic shape supposedly delivers more "direct tactile sensation," compared to a typical condom, for a more pleasurable experience. (The company is currently conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial in South Africa under their Gates grant and hopes to have the condom ready for FDA review by 2017. Allegations also arose that cofounder Daniel Resnic misused funds received by the NIH for research, which he is reportedly paying back; the NIH declined to comment to Mic.)
Other innovators are developing new materials from scratch to revolutionize what we know the condom to be. Jimmy Mays of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is testing out super thin thermoplastic elastomers, and scientists at the University of Manchester are gearing up to create a heat-conducting condom made of graphene.
Meanwhile, other condom creators like Mark McGlothlin are currently working to update the hated latex condom — breakable, desensitizing, unsexy — with materials that already exist, like collagen fibrils from beef tendons. "A lot of people are trying to get stronger and thinner material – that was always my focus," he told the New Republic. "But the texture of collagen is very much like the mucous membrane: the feel of it, the heat transfer of it, and to the touch, it feels very much like skin."
A smoother ride: If making the condom feel more "human" wasn't enough, innovators are also turning their attention to the awkward process of getting condom from bedside drawer to penis, from the fumbling and waiting to the unfortunate errors.
The Rapidom, currently in development in South Africa, features an attached applicator so it goes on in one swift motion. Another team in Australia is setting out to build an applicator that can work with any regular condom, to make the fumbling putting-on-a-condom experience go relatively hands-free.
Meanwhile, in response to the common complaint that condoms fit either too snugly or loosely for comfortable sex, U.K.-based TheyFit condoms is now offering 95 custom-fit condom sizes to their European customers. Penis size, after all, is incredibly varied. "When a condom fits better, it feels better during sex," TheyFit write on their site.
Empowering everyone with better products: Most of the condom innovation is happening for male condoms. Innovation for women has largely centered on a new market of "female-friendly" condoms — male condoms with decorated and patterned cases. When it comes to the rarely-used female condom, the only one approved by the FDA, the FC2, hit the market in 2009, and it was met with criticism for its lack of effectiveness, desensitizing material and garbage bag sound effects during sex.
"Unfortunately, the FC2 has given the female condom a bad name. We're trying to reverse that image and that mindset," IXu's Brian Osterberg told Mic. "Based on what we have now, it's not a big stretch of the imagination to figure that if you affix a sex toy to a female condom ... something's going to happen."
The catch, for the VA w.o.w. and other condom innovations? Even once tested, they can take years to get on actual shelves. The FDA approval process for condoms is notoriously strict and costly: A performance study testing 1,000 condoms can cost up to $1 million, according to Slate's L.V. Anderson.
But the innovations, slow as they are, speak to a growing recognition that even the functional condoms we have need work. Condoms that are custom-sized and designed with materials that reflect what we really want in sex, like pleasure and comfort, are no longer merely tools to prevent disease or pregnancy.
"It becomes less of a condom," Osterberg said. "And more of a sexy piece of art to enhance your love making."