Cover Up

Science Goes in Search of the Perfect Condom

What if using condoms didn't just prevent disease and pregnancy, but they actually felt good, too? Scientists say this isn’t a pipe dream. By Winston Ross and Lizzie Crocker

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty

Nic Wolkiewicz was having the kind of night most bachelors dream about. He met a “super hot” girl, through a friend, at a bar. She liked him, too, and they headed for her place.

After a pit stop, that is. Wolkiewicz, 28, wasn’t packing any condoms that night. So “we swung by a 7-Eleven and bought a three-pack of Magnums.” Back at her place, Wolkiewicz ripped open the first package and got down to business. It broke. So did the second one. And the third.

Her idea: throw caution to the wind and keep going. His idea: no effing way. They never saw each other again.

Wolkiewicz doesn’t waste his time with “what ifs” (though he is, for the record, still single). But what if? What if those condoms didn’t break so often? What if he and that super hot chick had mind-blowing sex and fell in love and got married and had beautiful babies who grew up and found the cure for cancer? What if all condoms he’d ever tried had been, well, better? What if there was such a thing as the perfect condom?

There just might be. At least, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seems to thinks so. It’s poring over thousands of applications for its “Grand Challenge” to develop a “next-generation condom that significantly enhances or preserves pleasure.”

A quixotic quest? To the 95 percent of men worldwide who don’t use condoms, maybe. But experts on the subject say the Gates project is a worthwhile endeavor, for a couple of key reasons: one, it could perk up an otherwise flaccid level of innovation in the rubber-making industry today, and two, it could focus condom design not just on what makes them more pleasurable for men, but on what might boost their prevalence in a developing world that desperately needs more people to have safer sex.

The Gates Foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Debby Herbenick, co-director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, Bloomington, says the “foundation has a global presence. Their interest is in reducing infection, with HIV as one of the major infections around the world. They’re not terribly interested in people who are at a very low risk for infection, whether they’re going to choose a studded or a flavored condom. They want a condom that’s innovative in a way that it will be a good, viable option around the world.”

Up to now, condom research has largely focused on disease prevention and risks, says Joshua G. Rosenberger, assistant professor of global and community health at George Mason University in Virginia. What could be groundbreaking about the Gates project—and affect condom design in the developed world, too—is a renewed emphasis on pleasure.

“That’s ultimately why people have sex,” Rosenberger says.

Making a more pleasurable condom is a tall order, though, if for no other reason than it’s an already crowded field and the public perception of condoms is universally terrible.

“No matter how thin it is, it's still there and it often affects performance,” says Teddy, 29, who asked that his last name not be used. “It can make you go soft, it can prevent you from getting off, and as a result sometimes I will avoid certain positions because you can forget about getting it back up with that condom on.”

It’s not just men who think condoms can ruin sex. Herbenick says it’s often the case that a couple doesn’t use condoms because the woman protests.

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Allie, 26, says she avoids condoms at all costs. “I find they make it harder for me to orgasm and I hate the taste they leave.”

Those sentiments exist largely because people have been trained to hate condoms, Herbenick said. She released a study in February that surveyed men and women about recent sexual experiences, and—she swears she is not making this up—the overall result was that sex was just as pleasurable with a condom on as without.

Rosenberger says it’s a “cultural misnomer” that men don’t use condoms because they decrease pleasure, and most studies on the topic find that condom haters are in the minority. Still, he says, “there’s a growing clamor for a better condom.”

The best way to convince all these people they’re wrong about rubbers, in other words, is probably just to invent one that at least doesn’t detract from the act and, at best, makes it better. Therein lie several other tricky questions: what do men want, what do women want, and what hasn’t already been tried?

Men, contrary to conventional wisdom, sometimes actually want to feel that they’re wearing a condom, Herbenick says. Too thin, and they get anxious that the thing slipped off. Women want a condom that doesn’t leave their lady bits either smelling like latex or itching from some adverse reaction to lubricant.

“The whole point is it’s not supposed to detract from the sexual experience,” she says.

The great stifler of condom innovation is actually competition, says Ron Frezieres, vice president of research and evaluation at the California Family Health Council, which has tested (don’t ask us how) more condoms than you could possibly imagine. And even with hundreds of different varieties on the market, they don’t actually vary that much, he says. They’re mostly latex-based; they mostly slide on and off the same way.

That’s because there’s not a whole lot of incentive to pour millions of dollars into researching some giant-leap-for-mankind type of innovation—especially if it’s just going to sit on a shelf next to 25 other condoms.

“The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on R&D,” says Frezieres. “The profit margins aren’t enormous, and there are too many products sharing market share.”

Herbenick hopes the $100,000 Gates grant is enough to inspire ideas from someone outside the business, someone who doesn’t have enough scratch to start a condom company but who might just have an ingenious idea. There’s already a “spray-on” condom, for example--and that’s just the beginning. There are strawberry-flavored condoms; vegan-friendly ones; tri-colored and vibrating condoms; “Night Light” glow-in-the-dark condoms (because nothing ruins the moment like having to fumble around for that slippery sucker.)

“If you’d asked people years ago what a smartphone would look like, there aren’t many who would have come up with an iPhone,” Herbenick says. “The idea is, is there something that when we see it, it’s going to blow our minds that this is even a condom? Something that’s fun to use, interesting to use, that makes sex better?”

Building the better condom is only the first step, though. The bigger obstacle is convincing people to let go of their preconceived notions and take the Next Big Thing for a spin.