All We Are Sayin’ is Give Female Condoms a Chance

By Rob Banaszak on March 14, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy

by Jessica Terlikowski, Director of Regional Organizing

Exactly one week before the annual commemoration of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the feminist blog Jezebel responded with intense skepticism to the USA Today headline claiming that female condoms (FCs) are gaining broader acceptance in U.S. cities. Citing the experience of one woman who did not enjoy using FCs and had difficulty locating them, the blogger casts them as nothing but a “sad sack of contraception options.”  Several readers’ comments belittled the safer sex tool as novelty or a joke and questioned why anyone would use it. While such mockery of the female condom is not uncommon, it is particularly disappointing when dismissed by those who purportedly support the reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

The female condom has endured more than its fair share of criticism since coming on the scene nearly 20 years ago. It’s ugly. It’s strange. It’s noisy. It’s difficult to use. It’s like having sex with a plastic bag. It’s too expensive. You get the idea. Such negative portrayals of the female condom are nothing new. However, they are ultimately a disservice to the women, men, transpeople, and youth who need and deserve an expanded range of HIV and STI prevention tools. We now have a second chance with the new generation of the female condom, the FC2, to create a more positive conversation.  The latest product is stronger, softer, quieter, seamless, hypo-allergenic, and more affordable. In short, it is a vast improvement from its predecessor.

The female condom is currently the lone receptive partner initiated HIV, STI, and pregnancy prevention tool available. And as such, it should be promoted and distributed with the same gusto with which we encourage male condom use. Several studies show that when female condoms are promoted and provided alongside male condoms, the total number of protected sex acts increases. Reduced infections and unintended pregnancies are exactly what we reproductive health, HIV and STI prevention, and sexual health professionals and advocates work to achieve. Yet, many among us are reluctant, and sometimes even loathe, to affirm or to offer female condoms because of bias against female condoms. Nearly 60,000 new HIV infections occur annually in the U.S. More than half of all new HIV infections occur among gay men and men who have sex with men.  Twenty-seven percent of the new HIV infections each year occur among women.  If we are to stem the HIV epidemic, we must work to expand the current array of prevention options beyond what is currently available. Ongoing advocacy for prevention technologies such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, vaginal and rectal microbicides, post-exposure prophylaxis, vaccines, and testing, treatment, and linkage to care is essential. Simultaneously, we have to ensure greater access to what we know works—male condoms, sterile syringes, and female condoms.  The more options we have the better.

A handful of jurisdictions around the U.S. are taking decisive action to dismantle negative biases and increase awareness, access, affordability, and use of female condoms. Chicago, New York City, New York State, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and now Houston equip service providers and front line prevention educators with the skills, language, and materials necessary to effectively promote female condoms within their communities. Following training, an overwhelming majority of prevention educators and service providers become committed female condom advocates. They use positive language when they talk about the female condom. It’s easy to use once you know how to use it. The outside ring increases pleasure for the woman. It helps the receptive partner—male or female—take better control of his or her health.

Six jurisdictions may seem like a small number, but this time last year there were four. And the year before that, there were only two. More comprehensive programs are expected to launch within the year and smaller grassroots initiatives are cropping up across the country. More commercial pharmacies are facilitating greater access to the female condom by charging between $5.99 and $6.99 instead of nearly three times those costs for the old version. March marks one year since CVS pharmacies in Washington, D.C. began stocking the new female condom in all District stores. Additionally, after nearly one year of advocacy, Walgreens is expanding access even further by selling the FC2 in approximately 700 stores across the nation and online.

There is no question that the female condom’s time has come. More work remains to ensure that it makes it into the hands of the people who need it both in the U.S. and around the globe. You can help! On the domestic side, check out the resources and opportunities to get involved with efforts in Chicago, New York City, New York State, San Francisco, Washington D.C. On the global front, check out the Prevention Now Campaign and Universal Access to Female Condoms (UAFC). UAFC is launching a new advocacy campaign to create massive chains of paper doll chains from around the world to demonstrate support for female condoms. They are inviting organizations around the world to write messages on paper dolls about why female condoms are important and needed. The chains will be displayed at the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting June 8-10 in New York City. Email Anna Forbes at annaforbes@earthlink.net to find out how you can participate.

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