Promoting the Female Condom in India: A New Approach

Micah Steffes

Last month at a New Delhi youth festival aimed at raising awareness for sexual health (dubbed Project 19), volunteers led onlookers in a game of female-condom-first-impressions. Combating the idea that safe sex can be unsexy, especially in the case of the female condom, they instead promote it as fun and pleasurable, and in some cases, as an "erotic accessory."

The first time I saw a female condom was the last time I ever thought about using one. The big ring and the bag-like structure seemed not only aesthetically unpleasing, but it also looked like a pain in the butt to insert. And besides being expensive, it’s saggy structure looked noisy and not-so-pleasurable. It just seemed all around un-sexy. 

Introduced in the ’90s, the female condom was launched as a new way to combat HIV/AIDS and other STIs, especially in developing nations. Presumably more effective since they cover more skin, it has historically failed in terms of distribution and marketing, probably because of the reasons I listed above. 

However, in recent years, the female condom has gotten a make-over. No more strange-looking plastic ring– the new ones’ insertion is more akin to a tampon. There’s also the addition of a softer, less crinkly material and adhesive dots to keep it in place and also to help it expand with the body. But I still have to wonder: can the female condom ever be sexy or pleasurable?

Health workers, as part of The Pleasure Project in India say yes! Taking criticisms such as mine into mind, last month at a New Delhi youth festival aimed at raising awareness for sexual health (dubbed Project 19), volunteers led onlookers in a game of female-condom-first-impressions, among other activities. Combatting the idea that safe sex can be unsexy, especially in the case of the female condom, they instead promote it as fun and pleasurable, and in some cases, as an "erotic accessory." 

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"Talking about disease and fear haven’t worked very well. People believe they are in a safe relationship and that disease does not apply to them," said Arushi Singh, a resource officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which trains health educators in South Asia. "But pleasure," she said, "applies to everybody."

 

Data suggests that this approach could work, especially among sex workers who, according to the National Aids Control Organization, have often persuaded clients to consent to protection using the pleasure rationale. Since India’s expanding its female condom distribution among 200,000 sex workers, could marketing this way mean women and men will buy into the female-condom-as-sex-toy pitch? Another advocate for this approach illustrates the pitch:

 

We tell the sex workers to have fun with the female condom.  We tell them, "You spend money on makeup, jewelry, jasmine flowers for your hair.  This female condom is another ornament for you."

 

It’s all good and well, but I can’t help feeling that this approach is almost inappropriate given the gravity of the situation– 2.4 million Indians were living with AIDS/HIV in 2007, which seems to merit a more serious discussion than ornamentation, especially when it comes to the impact that this has on women’s lives, both those currently doing sex work (which adds a whole other dimension of gravity) and those who are not.

But the pleasure platform has one distinct and very positive advantage: women who are denied power not only in terms of birth control decisions but in sex on the whole can only begin to reclaim it by talking about pleasure, and the easiest way to do that is in a casual and engaging way.  And as the only female-initiated means of preventing both pregnancy and STIs, the female condom is still the most preferable tool for promoting such an approach to safe sex. The pleasure platform reminds us that sex doesn’t always have to be about wresting control back for the sake of safety and for fear of the consequences. Instead, it can be a platform for reclaiming agency.

 

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Some Men Base Condom Use on Women’s Looks

Martha Kempner

This week, a study suggests some men are less likely to have safer sex with women whom they find attractive. There's now a study of women's pubic hair grooming habits, and a lot of couples don't have wedding-night sex.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Men Less Likely to Have Safer Sex If Partner Is ‘Hot’

The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is apparently easily forgotten when it comes to judging potential sex partners. A new study in BMJ Open found that men said they were less likely to use a condom if their potential partner was hot.

In this small study, researchers showed pictures of 20 women to 51 heterosexual men. The men were asked to rank how attractive the woman was, how likely they would be to have sex with her if given the opportunity, and how likely it was they would use a condom if they did have sex with her. The results revealed that the more attractive a man found a woman, the less likely he was to intend to use a condom during sex with her.

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Men also rated how attractive they consider themselves, and the results showed that this was also related to condom use. Men who thought of themselves as more attractive were less likely to intend to use a condom.

Researchers also asked the men to estimate how many out of 100 men like themselves would have sex with each woman given the opportunity and finally, how likely they thought it was that the woman in the picture had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The results of these two questions turned out to be related: The men assumed that women whom other men would want to sleep with were more likely to have STIs.

This did not make the men in the study any more likely to intend to use a condom with those women. In fact, the men were most likely to intend condom use with women they found less attractive, even though they considered these women less likely to have an STI.

This was a small study with a relatively homogenous group of men ages 18 to 69 near Southhampton, England, and it measured intention rather than behavior.

Still, the results could present a challenge for public health experts if men are making condom decisions on a broader scale based on attraction rather than risk assessment.

How and Why Women Groom Their Pubic Hair

A new study published in JAMA Dermatology is the first nationally representative survey of U.S. women’s pubic hair grooming habits. The study included more than 3,300 women ages 18 to 64.

Overall, 84 percent of women had engaged in some pubic hair grooming. Pubic hair grooming was more common among younger women (ages 18 to 24); among white women; and among women who had gone to college.

Before you start thinking everyone is out getting Brazilians, however, grooming means different things to different women. Only 21 percent of women said they took all their pubic hair off more than 11 times, and 38 percent of women say they’ve never done so. Moreover, waxing lags behind the most popular hair removal methods; only 5 percent of women say they wax compared with 61 percent who shave, 18 percent who use scissors, and 12 percent who use electric razors. (Respondents could choose more than one answer in the survey.)

Most women (93) do it themselves, 8 percent have their partners help, and 6.7 percent go to a professional.

The researchers were most interested in the most common reason women groom their pubic hair. The most common reason was hygiene (59 percent), followed by “part of my routine” (46 percent), “makes my vagina look nicer” (32 percent), “partner prefers” (21 percent), and “oral sex is easier” (19 percent).

Tami Rowen, the lead author of the study and a practicing gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times, “Many women think they are dirty or unclean if they aren’t groomed.”

But while people may think that, it’s not true. Pubic hair actually exists to help protect the delicate skin around the genitals. Rowen and other doctors who spoke to the Times believe that women, especially teenagers, are taking up grooming practices in response to external pressures and societal norms as reflected in images of hairless genitals in pornography and other media. They want young people to know the potential risks of grooming and say they’ve seen an increase in grooming-related health issues such as folliculitis, abscesses, cuts, burns, and allergic reactions. As some may remember, This Week in Sex reported a few years ago that emergency-room visits related to pubic hair grooming were way up among both women and men.

This Week in Sex believes that women should be happy with their genitals. Keeping the hair that grows does not make you dirty—in fact, it is there for a reason. But if shaving or waxing makes you happy, that’s fine. Do be careful, however, because the doctors are right: Vulvas are very sensitive and many methods of hair removal are very harsh.

Wedding-Night Sex May Be Delayed, But That’s OK With Most Couples

Summer is a popular wedding season, with couples walking down the aisle, exchanging vows, and then dancing the night away with friends and families. But how many of them actually have sex after the caterer packs up and the guests head home?

According to lingerie company Bluebella—about half. The company surveyed 1,000 couples about their postnuptial sex lives and found that 48 percent of them said they did “it” on their wedding night. Most women in those couples who did not get it on that night said they were just too tired. The men, on the other hand, said they were too drunk or wanted to keep partying with their friends. (It is unclear whether the survey included same-sex couples.)

By the next morning, another 33 percent of couples had consummated their marriage, but about 10 percent said it took 48 hours to get around to it.

But whenever couples did have that post-wedding sex, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) said it lived up to their expectations.