So many myths about sex are so over-the-top that by the time we leave our teenage years, we know they’re not true. But some persist because, frankly, they make a lot of sense. One of those myths is the idea that you should never wear two condoms during intercourse — sometimes called “double bagging” — because friction between them means they’re more likely to break than one condom alone, putting people at a higher risk of STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
I always believed that “fact” to be true. No reason not to, right? Logically, to a teenage brain, wearing two condoms made sense — twice the protection. So if the experts were saying that actually it didn’t make sense, then they were probably right.
But, it turns out, a lot of what we “know” about sex doesn’t have actual, good, scientific studies behind it. While Alfred Kinsey is commonly credited with doing the first large scale sex research in the mid-twentieth century, it’s only really in this century that sex research has started to gain steam. Respectable schools across the country now conduct sex-related research, striving to figure out how our bodies, minds, and the tools we use to protect and please us actually work.
And that’s awesome! We’re now seeing new sex research come out regularly. But, as a certified sex educator, I've seen that lot of the information we have about human sex and sexuality is still based on anecdote and a few poorly designed studies. Double-bagging falls under the category of “not much research at all” — and everything we do have is relatively recent.
To give you some perspective, there are five studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals about multiple condom use — and only three of those (two of which were conducted by the same research team) look at effectiveness. The oldest one is from 1995 which, coincidentally, was the first year that I had sex ed in school. Let’s take a look at what they found.
The first study was led by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, who examined condom usage in a legal brothel in Nevada. The participants were professional sex workers and their clients. Sixty-six percent of the women reported that at least one client had used two condoms simultaneously during intercourse over the past year, for a total of more than 5,000 instances of double-bagging. Eight of the women even used two condoms with every single client over the previous year. The women said they used double condoms in order to prevent breakage after experiencing a break, when having sex with a client with a particularly large penis, when they couldn’t identify marks on a client’s penis, when using thin condoms, and when clients requested it. They also said they used additional lube to prevent friction between the condoms.
Sex workers in Nevada are required to get tested every week and when the researchers examined STI rates, they found that none of the women contracted HIV/AIDs over a year-long period. That, they noted, was in sharp contrast to women working in illegal sex work in other parts of the country, who aren’t required to use condoms or to get tested regularly.
They also noted that the overall condom breakage was significantly lower than average, with 49 breaks reported for 41,127 instances of intercourse. That’s 0.12 percent, compared to the two percent for condom breakage in the general United States, according to the CDC. Taking into consideration how often the sex workers double-bagged and these two markers of condom failure, they concluded that double-bagging doesn’t actually increase the risk of condom breakage or STI exposure.
The next study was conducted by researchers at Chiang Mai University in Thailand in 1997. While the Nevada study was examining condom usage habits and results in general among legal sex workers, with a tangential discovery being that double-bagging is probably fine, this one specifically looked at the effectiveness of double-bagging. The participants were 68 legal sex workers and their clients. Over the course of 4,734 client visits, the researchers examined 7,594 condoms. They found breakage in 1.8 percent of instances of single condom use, compared with 0.2 percent of instances of double condom use. Interestingly, they found no breakage when more than two condoms were used. Also interestingly, there were only five instances of slippage, for a rate of 0.1 percent, and that was the same for one, two, or more than two condoms.
But that’s really it on the research into double-bagging. And these studies aren’t without their problems, the most glaring being that they were conducted with sex workers as subjects. Sex workers have significantly more sex with significantly more people than someone who doesn’t have sex professionally. As a result, it’s reasonable to assume that they’re better informed and more practiced that the average condom user. Would Joe and Jane down the block in suburbia know to use extra lube when using more than one condom, as the women in Nevada did? Hard to say.
It’s also generally not a great idea to pull conclusions from one or two studies and apply them to everyone. Until there’s a more extensive body of research on the topic of double-bagging, most sex educators are going to be hesitant to recommend it. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the conclusions that these studies came to were generally on the pro-double-bagging side of the issue. So if you're more comfortable wearing two condoms, wear two condoms. The evidence suggests that i’s probably not going to hurt — and it might even help.
Editor's note: This article was updated from its original version on 9/21.