the birds, the bees, and the bureaucrats

We could have better, safer, more effective condoms. Unfortunately, the FDA has wrapped the process of getting new designs approved in red tape.

model in bed

Over the years, this blog took the occasional stab at the way Americans deal with sex, and how downright bipolar the relationship often tends to be. Until the last few years, watching porn was far and away the biggest use of bandwidth on the web, and even now, with social media taking adult entertainment’s crown, it’s still gathering billions of views every week. If anything, we can safely argue that porn has been spilling over into social media as well with the sheer number of sexually explicit content across virtually every social platform, and find a way to show that it still remains the web’s top activity. At the same time, prudes across the world want pre-marital sex punished, or at the very least severely stigmatized, tout the virtues of having only one partner in your entire sexual life for absurd reasons, crusade against education that actually prevents the very diseases and unplanned pregnancies they want to stop, blame everything they hate about men on porn, and howl like apoplectic banshees if women who work in porn aren’t portrayed as damaged, abused, and helpless, but as active participants in their career choices.

All this isn’t just an unhealthy social dissonance to be discussed in purely academic terms, this active campaigning against treating sex like adults costs people their lives, literally. The Vatican and its many Christian detractors are complicit, directly or indirectly, in countless deaths caused by the spread of HIV and AIDS in the developing world by preaching against the use of what is pretty much the most effective and recommended way to combat new infections: condoms. We don’t have to turn into what’s best be described as these self-absorbed prudes’ hypersexual, I-have-more-sex-than-thou-so-I’m-better counterparts, but if we want to improve many people’s lives and health, we need to talk about sex like adults, and in our conversations about sex and sexuality, ask some important questions. One such question is why people don’t use condoms despite their proven medical efficacy, and our awareness of how risky it is to have unprotected sex without taking the proper precautions first.

Part of the answer lies in old world tradition of being only as sexually impressive as how many kids one has, so men in the developing world say that it makes them feel less masculine to use condoms, and enjoy sex far less. Since many of the cultures where this is prevalent also often treat women as property or something they win when they become proper men, they rarely get some say in the matter. While a long term solution would be empowering women to make their choices heard and enforceable in the afflicted societies, to the WHO, the easiest fix is to reform the men’s opinion of condoms. This is where it runs into the second most often used excuse to leave them in their wrappers. Modern latex condoms are often uncomfortable and deaden the sensations so much that they take a lot of the fun out of sex. Unlike reforming a culture toward gender equity, this is a purely technical problem, something we should be able to address very quickly and efficiently, right? Well, apparently, no, says Slate’s L.V. Anderson.

Typically given the unenviable job of editing a you’re-doing-it-wrong column, Anderson plunged into the world of longform popular science journalism and came out with a very well researched and deftly argued thesis that modern condoms are due for a serious upgrade and what stands in the way of this isn’t the technology or the science, but the FDA and its bureaucratic inertia, or rather lack thereof. While I highly recommend to read the whole article to get a detailed history of testing protocols and research into how to make a better condom, let me give you the main, err, thrust of the problem at hand. The reason why condoms take away so much sensation is a materials problem. Only tests for latex and different types of latex have been created and there is no desire to change protocols for anything other than testing the standard latex condom or a synthetic latex substitute. This means we’re stuck with latex and its poor ability to transfer body heat, which can dampen sensations so much that sex becomes thoroughly unenjoyable.

Now, the obvious solution is to experiment with other materials which conduct body heat much better and don’t have to sacrifice reliability for thinness or comfort for standardization. We have these materials and versions of far superior condoms have been in stores until the FDA put out an order to stop selling them after their testing protocol, which was designed for a one size fits everyone product made of the same material family, judged them to be riskier than the current latex standard. In response to the manufacturers’ notes, they refuse to change anything about the tests even when it’s obvious that they’re using the wrong tools for the job. And as an added problem of the aforementioned bipolar prudishness in our culture, condom manufacturers also don’t want to do real world studies on the wear and tear of their product for anything other than vaginal sex simply because they don’t want to be associated with studies of anal sex. So we’re basically at an impasse that can only be fixed by an adult conversation.

Publicly questioning the FDA about their obstinacy in modifying testing protocols in the press to force the agency to respond, and showing that we can mention anal sex without snickering on one side and fainting from moral outrage on the other to give companies incentive to study real world uses of their product, we may actually end up with a better condom. And that will not just help developed nations’ reproductive health but save hundreds of thousands of lives across the world. Yes, yes, the prudes will screech that giving people the tools to be “irresponsible” is evil and should be somehow punished or discouraged. But they’re only interested in helping those who share their ideology and believe that those who do contract an infection or have a surprise pregnancy deserve whatever they get. If our healthcare system and medical science followed their thought process, the world’s population would be far smaller and a lot sicker than it is now so we should feel very comfortable listening to their opinions and summarily dismissing them. If you’re going to tackle reproductive health, you can’t do it from the fainting couch.

# sex // bureaucracy / contraception / culture war / medical research


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