There are only so many ways to wrap a penis in plastic, but that hasn’t stopped a new crop of prophylactic engineers from trying to exhaust them all.
Condoms remain one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and yet, according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior conducted by Indiana University, only 1 in 3 acts of vaginal intercourse among single people in the U.S. are protected by a condom. In their early teens, the survey found, men use condoms 80 percent of the time but by age 18, their condom use falls below 50 percent.
Why is such a simple countermeasure against headache and disease still so unpopular? And what can be done to make the humble condom more appealing? That was the question the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked last year, when they put out a call to inventors, asking them to build better, more affordable, but mostly more pleasurable condoms. Indeed, most of the 11 condom projects that received seed money—or should we say anti-seed money—from the Gates Foundation focus on making condoms that improve sensation, a strategic move given the fact that one of the most widely-cited disincentives for condom use is a decrease in penile stimulation and sensitivity.
So far none of the Gates Foundation condoms have proven to be a breakout hit, with most of the promising projects like an ultra-thin condom and the “Origami condom” still moving through the research and development stage or awaiting market approval. But at the same time as these high-tech, high-profile condom projects have been underway, independent inventors and manufacturers have been trying to revolutionize prophylactic technology online, often with the help of crowdfunding websites. If you’re looking for something new and exciting to stick your penis into, look no further than the Internet. Some of these projects are promising, others questionable, but all of them are signs that the condom is about to undergo some serious changes in the coming years.
Earlier this year, for example, two Georgia tech students attempted to counteract the decreased sensitivity caused by condoms with the power of electricity by turning to crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to raise $10,000 for a device called the “Electric Eel,” which would send “short electric impulses along the underside of the shaft for increased stimulation.” The project never surpassed 20 percent of its funding goal, either because its target demographic feared what would happen in the case of an electrical malfunction or because they realized how hard it would be to convince a female partner to grant an electric condom entrée into her vagina. With only two IndieGoGo funders contributing enough to buy one of the prototypes, the Electric Eel is now swimming with the fishes.
The Galactic Cap, on the other hand, eked its way across its own crowdfunding finish line this past summer and is now available for pre-order with an estimated ship date set for sometime in 2015. As the name implies, the Galactic Cap is, simply put, a hat for your penis. The base of the hat—the rim, if you will—is an adhesive polyurethane film that gets applied to the tip of the penis sometime before sex and, when the big moment finally arrives, a small “reservoir cap” can be attached to the film to catch semen in the same manner as would a traditional condom. To achieve full effect, a miniature cane and penis-sized tuxedo vest can be made using materials from your nearest hobby shop. Voilà, your penis is now Fred Astaire.
In all seriousness, the Galactic Cap manufacturers speculate that men will be more likely to use a form of contraception that still allows them to experience full sensation along the shaft of the penis as well as the sensitive coronal ridge. In their IndieGoGo campaign, they take direct aim at the Gates Foundation condom grants, noting that all 11 of their designs “cover the entire penis,” a project that they compare to “rearrang[ing] deck chairs on the Titanic” in its futility. Before all penises sink into the icy North Atlantic Ocean that is reduced penile sensation, Galactic Cap hopes to make the condom fun and pleasurable without compromising its effectiveness, at least as a simple contraceptive measure. But while the base of the device has been pre-approved by the FDA, the entire device has yet to be approved, and the lack of full coverage may be cause for concern for those worried about sexually transmitted infections that result from skin-to-skin contact.
And if a Galactic Cap would leave your penis feeling dangerously exposed, like walking in sandals in the snow, another American manufacturer has designed the full-length parka of prophylactics. For the team behind the unfortunately named Scroguard, the problem with condoms is that they do not cover enough surface area to completely prevent the skin-to-skin transmission of herpes and HPV. The Scroguard is essentially a pair of high-fastening latex briefs with a hole for a penis in the front and, according to its viral computer-animated infomercial, it is an ideal product for men who are “not sure of someone’s sexual past.” The ad even instructs men that they can “put on Scroguard hours before the main event” so as to “avoid awkward interruptions.” Awkward interruptions that presumably do not include the inevitable conversation about why your penis is poking out through a hole in your latex underpants or the “Whoopee cushion-like noise” the device might make when in use.
Scroguard has not been evaluated or approved by the FDA and it has been widely mocked in the media as “a giant latex Mormon diaper” and “the birth control device of your nightmares” but Scroguard founder Addison Sears-Collins has been pleased with sales so far, noting in an e-mail interview that they are selling faster than expected and have begun shipping the product internationally as well. As for the name? Sears-Collins notes that “scrotum” is a Latin word, which allows for the product name to have tremendous international reach. Whether you’ve got an “escroto,” a “scroto” or a “skrotum” hanging between your legs, the word “Scroguard” will call it to mind. Laugh all we want, the device appears to have found a foothold, as Sears-Collins told The Daily Dot, in the “swing and latex fetish community,” among others.
But perhaps the answer to the condom crisis does not lie in any of the fancy new gadgets listed above. As B Condoms CEO and safe sex advocate Jason Panda wrote of the Bill and Melinda Gates initiative earlier this year, “innovation is no substitute for education” when it comes to promoting condom use. One important educational tidbit that might serve to increase condom use: according to a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, “men and women consistently rate sex as highly arousing and pleasurable with few differences based on condom or lubricant use.” In fact, the data for this study was taken from the same National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior that found that condoms are dramatically underused by single adults in the U.S. even though “they were just as likely to rate the sexual extent positively in terms of arousal, pleasure, and orgasm” whether or not they were using condoms.
Condoms, in short—or in extra long—might not be as bad as you’ve been led to believe. If more people looked at this hard data instead of relying on accounts from their peers, condom use could receive a serious boost. But if you absolutely need a new, high-tech condom to persuade you to keep it wrapped, then don’t worry: change is on the horizon. By this time next year, your penis could be wearing its own polyurethane top hat.