For the first time in eight years, the government is launching a sexual-health campaign. Conversation around sexual health over the past few years has tended to be more about emotional awareness, gender identity and consent, so it’s been a while since we’ve heard a straight-up biological warning from those in power.
And here it is: young people aren’t wearing condoms.
A survey conducted by Public Health England and YouGov has revealed that almost half of 16- to 24-year-olds have never used a condom with a new partner. Ten per cent have never used one, period. And, while it’s usually my first instinct to rush to the defence of young women who are being pressured into skin-on-skin sex with their male partners, the reality is that most of them simply don’t like how it feels. The young women interviewed by the BBC are happier to be on the pill or a contraceptive implant, admitting that it’s simply “not as nice” to wear a condom. The fact that this leaves them vulnerable to STIs seems immaterial – after all, most STIs are something you can sort out with a course of antibiotics. As for the more serious ones… well. That’s why we’re having this conversation – there’s no getting around the fact that condoms are the only form of contraception that is 99 per cent effective in protecting against disease, a fact we all sort of know, but are statistically choosing not to acknowledge.
I say “we all” because, while this is being framed as an under-25 issue, it applies to many of us outside of that age bracket, too. Statistically, there comes a point in most heteronormative relationships when you decide to leave condoms behind.
I conducted a short study on condoms using SurveyMonkey, where 209 women (sourced from my Twitter followers, so naturally it’s biased) took part. I specifically asked for women who have sex with men. Of these, 77 per cent of them were having sex with just one partner. Sixty per cent of respondents said that they no longer used condoms with their partner, but that they had – for varying time periods – used them at the beginning of their relationship.
We live in a world where the parameters of a heterosexual romantic relationship are frequently defined by what the man is willing to sign up for
It’s funny, isn’t it? When your relationship is at its most young and fragile – when every sexual encounter is dominated by the fear of a) fanny farting or b) having to do a poo in the ensuite bathroom – this is when we tend to embrace condoms the most. This is when we stop to grab a foil packet and, in the half-darkness, attempt to make a million-and-one micro-decisions that come with using a condom. Which is the correct side to roll it down on? Would he rather put it on himself, or would he be impressed by the putting-it-on-with-your-mouth trick that you saw as a teenager in More magazine and have never quite had the guts to try yourself?
And yet, when some time has passed and our relationships are at our most comfortable – when everyone has had a turn pooing in the ensuite, as it were – that’s when we tend to discard condoms.
Obviously, there’s a good reason for all of this. We let our partners come inside of us when they have proven, through either good behaviour or through actual proof from a GUM clinic, that they are to be trusted. We live in a world where the parameters of a heterosexual romantic relationship are frequently defined by what the man is willing to sign up for. We are subjected to endless media about whether he (always this anonymous, distant “he”, this odd every-boyfriend that is simultaneously courting us all) is ready for commitment, ready to move in or ready for marriage. The decision to move on from condoms, however, is this odd, quiet decision chiefly made by women. Do I like you enough to put my body through an intensive hormonal change? Do I trust you enough not to cheat on me? Do I think that you’re the sort of man who would hold my hand through a miscarriage or an abortion or a full pregnancy?
For most of the women I surveyed, this point – this trust barrier, I suppose you could call it – was broken in the first three months of them meeting their partner. While this seems common (52 per cent), it is by no means inevitable – one close friend tells me that she was sleeping with someone for almost a year, only for him to politely ask just when, exactly, she was planning to go on the pill. “Never – that’s when!” she said, incredulous. “What? I’m supposed to change my body’s chemistry because you don’t like condoms?”
But that’s not to suggest that the reason most women quickly move on from the condom phase is because they are looking for symbolic ways to reward their partner’s valiance. While we’re used to seeing men complaining about how condoms feel, women are no fans either. In my own survey, almost all of the women rejected “ribbed” or enhanced-pleasure condoms (weird raised dots seem to be the thing, these days), as well as outrightly ignoring flavoured or scented options. Additionally, many women commented that they were only using condoms because the pill “made me crazy” or they were prone to thrush and BV.
And that has a lot to do with how condoms are designed. Or, to put it another way, it’s because the lack of intelligent design in condoms has killed people’s desire to use them. Condoms haven’t really changed since the 1950s. Sure, there have been alterations – ribs, dots, flavours, scents – but the size and structure have remained the same. The average condom is too long for the average penis, meaning that the extra material gets bunched at the base, cutting off circulation.
In 2013, Bill and Melinda Gates actually sponsored a contest, inviting ideas for condoms that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure”. While many prototypes were made, none have made it to market. Most have given up. “Custom” condoms are apparently on the rise, where the user is expected to “roll down” the excess material. The frankly bizarre “Galactic Cap”, meanwhile, covers only the tip of the penis with some kind of medical bandage and promises more sensation because it covers less skin. Collagen condoms, made from “cow tendon or fish skin”, have also come out of the Bill and Melinda Gates project, but, regardless of ethical issues, are too expensive to make to be viable.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that one in 10 women still finds buying condoms embarrassing. We buy ourselves tampons, pregnancy tests and diarrhoea-inducing diet teas, but the idea of buying a jumper for a penis is, for many women, a bridge too far.
Sensation, stigma and downright awkwardness all play a part in the condom’s abysmal popularity. But with many women realising that hormonal birth control doesn’t work for them (and many more deciding simply not to have sex on their more fertile days), the condom industry has a huge job to do for its female customers – and that won’t be solved with “ribbed, for her pleasure”.