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In case you haven't already heard, the female condom (FC) has had a recent redesign. Yippee! (And how much do I love "put a ring on it" as a slogan for female condom use? I love it a whole lot.)
I was able to catch up with Mary Ann Leeper, the Female Health Company's Senior Strategic Advisor and past President/COO to ask her a few questions people seem to have about it. Check it out!
The FC has recently been redesigned! Can you tell us about the changes?
What’s new about the FC2 condom is the material. Our first-generation product was made with polyurethane. The second-generation female condom is made with a synthetic rubber called nitrile. Nitrile delivers at least two benefits to consumers. The first is that it lets us make FC2 with the same cost-efficient “dipping” process used to make male condoms. The second is that nitrile is softer than polyurethane, which means that FC2 feels softer and it doesn’t make noise when you use it.
Why did you make those changes?
We made FC2 because we realized that the first-generation female condom simply cost too much, and we knew that we couldn’t make it more affordable to HIV prevention programs and consumers unless we changed the material and introduced a more cost-effective manufacturing process. So we made the switch to a new material with the goal of expanding affordable access to HIV prevention to women and men around the world.
It's great to have another option besides male condoms for condom use, but having the FC isn't so simple as just having a different style of condom. Can you talk a bit about why?
The short answer is that it’s easier to put something “on” a penis than it is to put something “in” a vagina. That’s just the basic difference between male and female anatomy. But if he doesn’t want to put a male condom “on,” what do you do then? We think it’s better for women to have their own option. And we’ve invested a lot of our resources in creating programs that teach women the simple steps to insert and use the female condom.
We know that this kind of grassroots education pays off because we have a great example. The tampon was first developed in the early 20th century, but it took decades of grassroots education and outreach before enough women used it and could spread the word to their friends. We’re confident that we can achieve the same awareness and use with the female condom.
What myths have you encountered around female condoms: what things do people think about them that just aren't true?
The most frustrating and damaging myth is that “women don’t like female condoms.” We have dozens of published, peer-reviewed studies that show they do. And the research shows that user acceptability of the female condom – among women and men – is comparable to the male condom. And if you are a man, what’s not to like? She’s the one wearing protection!
Another myth that we need to overcome is that “There is no need for female condoms if male condoms are available.” Research shows that when couples have access to more prevention choices, the rate of unsafe sex decreases and the rate of new sexually transmitted infections declines. What’s wrong with having more choices?
How easy (or hard) is it for people to get the FC? Where can everyone find them?
Currently in the U.S., FC2 is available only through public sector distributors – like community based organizations, health clinics, and AIDS service organizations. The exciting exception is DC, where CVS/pharmacy has taken real leadership in making sure that women and men have 24/7 access. We are a manufacturer, not a marketing company, so we need to recruit retail partners and distributors to expand access. We’re convinced that grassroots education and access will stimulate demand to the point where we can secure more retail partners. And we’re working hard to convince more retail outlets to carry FC2.
What's your favorite FC success story?
This is the story that inspires me most: I was working long hours to finish up the detailed dossier that the FDA requires for all of its product approvals. It was tough, draining work, and just when I was starting to ask myself whether it was worth the effort, my phone rang. A young woman had participated in an FC study at Columbia University and she wanted to thank me for helping her. She told me that she was in an abusive relationship, that her boyfriend was HIV positive, and that he was refusing to use a male condom. Then she told me that having the female condom allowed her to protect herself without his knowledge. She’d insert it before he came home, usually high on drugs and alcohol, and she knew that she’d be OK. She called to thank me for helping her and other women have a way to stay free of HIV and other STIs. I should be thanking her, because she showed me that all the effort made a difference.
What special tips can you give FC users for how to use them best?
Practice makes perfect! Research shows that it can take up to three tries for women to become fully comfortable inserting and using a female condom. That’s why access to education and outreach, delivered by trusted peer educators and user-oriented materials is so important. And we have evidence that this approach works.
A P.S. from Scarleteen: some things we like to remind people about with the female condom that they might not know are: