Will a Better Condom Get Men on the Safe Sex Express?

by Lily Allen

The Bill and Melinda Gates Initiative, dedicated to improving health and quality of life across the globe, has undertaken what it calls a “Grand Challenge”: the development of a “next generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure.” The foundation just finished collecting more than 500 applications for a $100,000 grant and the subsequent possibility of $1 million.

Before you start telling your friends Bill Gates is opening a sex toy franchise called Silicon Valley, the goal of the contest is to address unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (condoms being the cheapest and most effective way to prevent both). When all seven continents are considered, only 5 percent of men deign to wear a rubber, which makes stats of 2.5 million HIV infections per year no less shocking, but more easily understood.

I think the Gates’ “Grand Challenge” is admirable, and I greatly enjoyed learning about the crazy cornucopia of condoms already available here in the United States via the New York Times article covering the competition. However, I wonder if our cultural emphasis on male pleasure, which until quite recently was a near exclusive emphasis, is leading us down a false path and further away from real solutions to the problem of world wide condom apathy (or antipathy).

Not following? If a woman celebrity told the media her throat cancer was due to oral sex, would giving head in general be up for debate?

I’m not a guy, I will never know what it’s like to don a gent tent, but something tells me condoms are not a medieval torture device. There have to be other reasons only 5 percent of men wear them globally, besides the fact that they decrease pleasure. The risks are just too high, or as my close friend Sam told me: “[Condoms] decrease pleasure, but they don’t decrease pleasure as much as babies or AIDS.”

I’d venture to guess education, availability, and particularly the stigma around condom use for men and women are where the Gates Foundation should consider channeling its dedication and resources next. The Times article mentions that in some countries “condom negotiation” is a constant, and women who carry them are assumed to be prostitutes. Back here in the good ole’ US of A, we’ve all overheard that dude who thinks wearing a rubber isn’t “macho.” Make condom use synonymous with manhood in this country and I bet we’ll see better results. (A quick poll of some of my guy friends indicates they actually help you last longer—sounds pretty manly to me).

I hope the Gates Initiative or some other organization does crack the code for a more enjoyable condom, a condom that feels like it isn’t there and magically appeals to men across cultures, preferences, sizes, and sex positions. “Showering in a raincoat” does not sound fun. But it still sounds better than the Pill.