Can 11 designers reinvent the condom?

The Gates Foundation wants to prioritise condom innovation and is offering $1m funding for each selected design project. Zoe Cormier looks at some of the prototypes being tested.

CONDOMS are the only form of contraceptive that protect against both HIV and pregnancy: humanity cannot do without them.

But there are problems: while condoms are 98% effective when used correctly, they are hugely unpopular — worn by an estimated 5% of men.

This is a fatal flaw in developing countries, where a HIV diagnosis remains a death sentence, due to the high cost of antiretroviral drugs. 

Condom design, unchanged in 120 years, is ripe for a makeover.

In 2013, Bill and Melinda Gates announced that their foundation was prioritising condom innovation: they offered $100,000 to any team with a proposal for a “next-generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use”.

The foundation received 800 submissions, which they narrowed down to 11 winners; another 11 received the grant in 2014. 

The successful proposals ranged from use of Nobel prize-winning materials (graphene) to built-in applicators or lubricant. 

Those proposals are now able to apply for phase-two funding of up to $1m each — the winners will be announced later this year, with only a handful likely to be successful.

ORIGAMI SOLUTION

“When I first said, two decades ago, that I was inventing new kinds of condoms, people asked: ‘what could be different’?” says inventor, Danny Resnic, in his condo in Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles. 

“Nobody was capable of imagining anything else. We are all so accustomed to one concept, we haven’t challenged it. True change is going to have to come from outside the industry: from the mavericks.”

Resnic talks me through what he believes will be the condom of the future, an eccentric shape that has taken him 25 years to develop. Made of thick, yellow latex, it resembles a squeaky dishwashing glove. 

Yet, 28 South African couples — half heterosexual, half homosexual — are road-testing his design. 

He’s testing it there, Resnic says, because the approval process was quicker and easier than in the US.

Flaring out like a trumpet, Resnic’s origami internal condom comes in both ‘male’ and ‘female’ versions, and if it passes the grade it will become the world’s first device approved for anal sex.

Resnic first thought of a ribbed, super-strong condom 20 years ago. He had watched the love of his life, and his best friends, die of Aids in the 1980s, and had adopted diligent safe-sex practices. But, in 1993, a condom broke during sex and he, too, contracted HIV.

Condom breakage is rare — four in 1,000 uses. Resnic was not just terrified; he was angry. How could he have used the best device available and still be handed what felt like a death sentence? 

“I thought: ‘there must be a better way to create safe sex’.” 

Twenty-five years and $2.5m later, he’s nearly fulfilled his dream of a condom that enhances pleasure: a contraceptive that doubles as a sex toy — which could make sex with a condom better than sex without one. 

“Having sex with a traditional condom is like trying to taste a lollipop with saran wrap on your tongue,” he says, handling a latex condom. 

“It’s just never going to feel amazing.”

An earlier origami condom, with its male and female versions, was pleated horizontally, rather than folded, and made from silicone designed to move up and down the penis.

Tests found that 67% of couples liked using the origami female condom, compared with just 16% for the female condoms on the market. 

Can 11 designers reinvent the condom?

The latest version of the origami condom has thick, vertical ribs, which Resnic says will be more pleasurable than traditional, ribbed condoms. “The pleats create reciprocating motion by buckling and unbuckling,” he says.

Recently, he has made his most dramatic change: a switch from silicone to thick, opaque latex. 

Silicone turned out to be “too bulky”, and the latex condoms can be made by dip-moulding, which is much cheaper than injection moulding when mass-produced.

Will Resnic’s otherworldly, ribbed, buckling and gripping design prove the breakthrough that the Gates’s are looking for? Will men who dislike clothing their erections in thin sleeves of latex prefer thick, ribbed chambers?

LAMBSKIN SHEATH

Not everyone is keen on Resnic’s drastic redesign.

“The origami condom really is more of a sex toy that is inserted into somebody,” says Mark McGlothlin, president of Apex Medical Technologies, another Gates Foundation winner. 

“That doesn’t mean it’s bad sex,” he says of Resnic’s condom, “but it’s not the same thing. The point of a condom is to mimic natural intercourse.”

Apex, like almost every other team, are not trying to reinvent the wheel, but to make it lighter and sleeker, with materials that are thinner, but stronger, than latex.

While some teams are going hi-tech, Apex is going back to basics with collagen, giving animal intestines a makeover.

Can 11 designers reinvent the condom?

Lambskin condoms have been used for centuries. The oldest sheep-gut condom, recovered from a latrine in Dudley Castle in the West Midlands, was dated to 1646.

Today’s versions are still fashioned from intestine, but sanitised with modern chemistry. 

They don’t account for a huge slice of the market and are used by people who have latex allergies or who prefer the feel of genuine flesh over synthetic latex.

McGlothlin thinks they are “disgusting”. 

“They stink like they came from an animal and they look like they came from an animal. Yet, they still have wonderful properties.” 

The collagen in the skin, for instance, has far better heat transfer and water-content properties than latex. 

People who use lambskin report that they feel more natural, but they are expensive, averaging €5.40 each, and are too porous to protect against HIV.

Can 11 designers reinvent the condom?

Instead of using lambskin, McGlothlin’s proposal is to “upcycle” beef waste into reconstituted collagen.

By grinding animal hide through a series of high-powered blenders and by chemically treating the fluffy, white fibres with a variety of plasticisers, surfactants and wetting agents, he is perfecting a condom that meets all the criteria: tactile, cheap and ready for the assembly line.

On paper, it sounds perfect: thoughtfully traditional, yet hi-tech, and made of recycled materials.

In Apex’s sunny San Diego lab, handling the prototypes, I could feel the creases in my fingers, and tiny bumps on my skin, through the condom. And it did not smell or look as if it came from an animal.

The California Family Health Council, in downtown LA, is also developing its own new condom, with Gates funding. 

Its design is polyethylene, not stretchy and thick, but firm and thin. Technical description: ‘ultra-sheer wrapping condom’.

Or somewhat like clingfilm. “Our manufacturer has begged us, ‘Oh God, don’t compare it to saran wrap — people will think we’re making sandwich wrappers’,” says Ron Frezieres, VP of research and evaluation. 

Can 11 designers reinvent the condom?

Unlike most new designs — modelled on the old, roll-on concept — polyethylene condoms are not taut and phallic, but baggy.

 A bit roomy, they truly are one-size-fits- all, clinging and wrapping, instead of squeezing and constricting. 

They are very thin, about a quarter of the thickness of latex, and the polymer is less likely to degrade in hot climates, such as warehouses in India, Africa and South America, where latex condoms have broken down.

The donning method is easier: you roll it on like a sock, using two pull tabs. “Zip and it’s on,” Frezieres says. 

No fumbling and fussing, no arousal-killing dithering — and a godsend if you live in an area without electric lights. 

Putting condoms on inside out is a serious issue in developing countries hit hardest by the HIV epidemic.

Innovative, cheap and practical, is the CFHC design the Gates’s silver bullet?

“In all our years of research with condoms, we have learned that there is no silver bullet,” Frezieres says.

“Some like them clear, others go for coloured, some prefer bumps, others like them ribbed. There’s so much variation in taste. Some even like flavoured condoms. 

"I don’t know what the magic mix is, but I don’t think there is one single solution. The great challenge is to develop a bunch of new and creative ideas that push the entire field forwards.”

CARBON OPTION

At the University of Manchester, the big idea is to use graphene, the super material composed of only the element carbon.

It won Manchester-based scientists, Andre Geim and Kostantin Novoselov, the Nobel prize in physics in 2010.

Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan, a lecturer in nanomaterials, initiated a research group to apply for Gates funding to investigate embedding graphene into regular, latex condoms. 

The idea is that it would allow them to be made much thinner (graphene is just one atom thick), as well as stronger.

Adding graphene won’t jack up the price by more than 10% or 20%: “It’s not like we’re adding gold,” Vijayaraghavan says. 

But what the condom feels like or looks like, he will not divulge. A patent is pending.

Which of these new designs is most likely to disrupt the industry? 

William Potter is a British condom consultant, who has overseen development in the R&D departments of major condom manufacturers since 1985.

What does he make of the Gates Foundation’s mavericks?

“The initiative has succeeded in bringing in new ideas and more speculative projects than the industry would have been capable of, or willing to, support. Whether or not that is a good idea, we will have to wait and see.”

  • Zoe Cormier is the author of Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science, Profile, €17.40

Getting paid to have sex a no-brainer

CONDOM TESTING

Brendan Weinhold and Christina Pederson began experimenting with new kinds of condoms four years ago, when they saw an ad on Craigslist for couples to test contraceptives for cold hard cash.

Get paid to have sex? How could you say no?

“If anything was difficult, it was having to schedule sex,” Brendan says. 

“You know: ‘Ugh, we have to do it now.’ Filling in a calendar was bothersome.”

After sex, they had to fill in paperwork, recording all sorts of details for the California Family Health Council (CFHC), America’s top testing facility for experimental condoms: whether they were both sober, which partner put the condom on, what positions they took, if the condom made any noise, if pubic hair snagged, how long they lasted, if either had an orgasm (and how many), if anyone felt pain. Plus the obvious: how far the condom came down the penis.

“It was a bit strange writing down the amount of time we had sex for. ‘Are we good at having sex or bad at having sex?’” Christina says.

Christina and Brendan, both 33, live in a house share in LA: she is an as-yet unpublished novelist, he is trying to make it as an actor. 

Christina had previously volunteered as a subject in a medical study that required her to lie in a hospital bed, donating blood, receiving intravenous drugs.

“That made me feel like much more of a lab rat,” she says. “This time I felt as if I was actually doing something. It felt as if our opinions actually mattered.”

NAUGHTY BUT NICE

Amy and Max Hurwitz met in college and signed up to a CFHC study in their first year of dating. “Getting paid to have sex? Um, yes!” says Amy, over coffee in their West Hollywood apartment.

Married with no children, they are an attractive couple: Max resembles a wholesome Clark Kent; Amy, young with curly brown hair, does most of the talking — which is fitting, as she did most of the testing work: inserting the rings, wearing diaphragms, sporting the cumbersome female condom.

“We always thought of it as a good deed,” she says. “We called it ‘sex for science’.

And because it was science, we always followed the rules — we weren’t going to f**k up science!”

What has been their least favourite test? The female condom, by far. The best? The IUD.

They disagree on an ultra-thin, polyurethane condom, which Max describes as “bag-like”.

“It wasn’t terrible, it would have been an acceptable option,” he says. “But it had this weird texture.”

“See, I liked it,” interjects Amy, “because it was clear and I could actually see his penis.”

The couple have pooled the money they earn doing studies — $100 each per trial — into a savings account, earmarked for vacations.

And there has been another unexpected bonus: normal sex has become even more thrilling.

“You have to wait three days after unprotected sex to have condom trial sex — so we found ourselves thinking, a lot of the time, ‘Are we going to have Study Sex, or Sex Sex?’

“It felt a little bit naughty.”


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