Answers to some common questions about condoms
Mic.com recently approached me to answer some common questions that people have about condoms. (These were actual questions that people e-mailed in). Although I’m briefly quoted in the article, I figured I’d share my extended responses on my own blog.
I’ll start with some answers based on my academic knowledge…
Question: Is there anyone (specifically male) out there that doesn’t mind wearing a condom?
Answer: Certainly. While I have never met or interviewed any men who said they actually liked condoms, I have met and interviewed men who said they didn’t mind them. These men are not the majority, but they are not a tiny minority either. Several men I have spoken with greatly prefer to use female condoms, although these certainly do not work well for everyone.
Interestingly, contrary to stereotype, while the slight majority of men do seem to dislike condoms (at least in the U.S.), women are more likely than men to say that they hate condoms.
Question: Stopping to ask a partner to put on a condom can be a bit of a moodkiller, is there any way to make it less awkward?
Answer: Unfortunately, the easiest way to remove the moodkill here is for the culture to change. In the swinging and BDSM subcultures, condom use is simply expected, so no one ever has to really ask someone to use a condom. Mainstream culture doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet.
I had hoped that some experienced people would answer this very question for me when I set out to interview people about their contraceptive negotiations; unfortunately, I found again and again that the people who had had the most casual sex had only occasionally or rarely used condoms with their partners.
There are two major factors that make people feel more comfortable negotiating condom use: trust and power. People need to feel physically and emotionally safe with their partner, and also feel like they won’t be negatively judged for asking to use a condom. (Contrary to popular belief, sobriety turns out not to really be a factor on this one. Our perception is just very distorted by the fact that the kinds of people who have lots of drunken casual sex tend to be the kinds of people who have sex without condoms, regardless of their level of intoxication). So the short answer is: try to only have sex with people you feel comfortable with, and you’ll usually find that it’s not nearly as hard–especially if you make it clear that condoms are expected before you ever get to the sexy times.
…Since that may be unrealistic, the rest of this answer becomes gendered. For men, it’s generally pretty easy, since usually all they need to do is put on a condom. The women I’ve met who are allergic to latex usually carry alternatives (non-latex male condoms or female condoms) around with them. While I don’t doubt that it’s happened somewhere sometime, I’ve never professionally or personally heard of women trying to argue men out of using condoms.
For women, things are trickier. Unfortunately, even female condoms require some cooperation from the man to be able to use well, so even the theoretically simple strategy of just wearing one around (which you can do for several hours at a time as long as it doesn’t annoy you) will only get you so far. If you’re trying to avoid having an awkward discussion, just handing a guy a condom at an appropriate moment will get you a long way. If he tries to argue with you, then put your clothes back on, because how many other people do you think he’s done that with? Similarly, having sex with enough light to be able to see that he actually put it on is wise. Alternatively, learning to put condoms on yourself can be really helpful (with either your hand or your mouth) and reduce some of the moodkill.
Question: What are the odds she won’t get pregnant? i.e. how effective are condoms?
Answer: This question is a very tricky one. Contraceptive statistics come in two forms: “perfect use” and “typical use.” With “perfect use” of male condoms, only about 2% of users should become pregnant over the course of a year; those aren’t bad odds considering that the same statistics tell us that without any birth control, 85% of “users” should become pregnant over the course of a year.
Unfortunately, our “typical use” statistics for condoms are a lot bleaker, and we usually get numbers between 15-18% rates of failure in those cases. However, those numbers are very distorted by the fact that people tend to use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently across time. Indeed, in typical use, male condoms are only slightly better (18% failure) than withdrawal (22% failure). Our research indicates that that’s because a lot of people functionally are just using withdrawal when they claim to be using condoms (they put the condom on after they’ve already started having sex), and because many long-term condom users alternate between withdrawal and condoms.
It’s worth noting that despite their problems with pregnancy prevention, condoms tend to be remarkably effective at preventing the spread of most sexually transmitted infections (especially HIV).
For some more detailed information, check out the Guttmacher Institute, and this article from nbcnews.
Question: What about female condoms? What are they and do they work?
Answer: Female condoms are non-latex barriers worn inside a woman’s vagina. Current statistics on female condom use in the U.S. give 5% failure rates for perfect use, and 21% failures for typical use. However, most people don’t know how to use female condoms very well, so it’s hardly surprising that the failure rates are rather high.
The major problems with female condoms are that they can get bunched up inside the vagina during sex if you’re not careful, or the man can miss the condom and accidentally go around it. Some men report that it feels like they’re “having sex with a plastic bag.” However, there are some serious benefits of female condoms, not the least of which is that both men and women often report that once they get going, they can barely tell they’re using anything. They also almost never break, and they don’t need to be sized.
I have posted two instructional videos on how to use female condoms. One for vaginal sex, and one for anal sex. I’ve also blogged before about some of their more general virtues.
…Okay, from here on out, I’m going to answer questions based on educated opinion and personal experience, not academic research.
Question: I’m having exclusive, partnered sex with someone who’s been tested negative for STIs and I have too. And I’m on birth control. Should I still use a condom?
Answer: It all comes down to your and your partner’s tolerance for risk. The pregnancy related questions are: (1) What kind of birth control are you on? For example, the failure rate for the birth control pill is considerably higher than for an IUD. (2) How good at taking it are you? (A wonderfully irrelevant question with an IUD). (3) How disastrous for your lives would a pregnancy be? If a pregnancy would completely ruin your life, then you might want to keep using condoms unless they’re ruining your sex life. If it would merely be very inconvenient, then you’re probably going to be okay.
As for your risk of STI’s, it really comes down to how much you trust your partner. With the exception of a few things like HSV-1 and yeast infections–both of which you can get from all kinds of non-sexual activities and sexually transmit–STI’s pretty much by definition have to come from having sex. And if you’re both negative, they have to come from having sex with someone else.
Question: If you and your same sex partner are both clean, do you still need to wear one?
Answer: I’m going to assume that this question pertains to men having sex with men, since women having sex with women usually use gloves and dental dams for protection, not condoms.
As with the above question, this one comes down to risk tolerance: how certain are you that your partner isn’t having sex with anyone else (or if they are, that they’re using protection with them)? If you feel pretty good about that, then you’re probably fine.
Aside: It’s also probably worth taking a moment to consider the implications of the term “clean.” Do you really think people with STI’s are “dirty”?
Question: Can the type of condom make a difference in achieving pleasure? Do studded or not studded actually make a difference? Does ribbing actually make a difference?
Answer: To some women, yes. My personal favorite male condoms are a brand called Wild Rose, which are ribbed. I don’t think they make a huge difference, but they do make a small difference. But I’m a masochist who likes highly frictive sex, so I’m certainly not representative of the general population.
However, it’s important to note that the biggest factor in condom pleasure AND effectiveness is having them sized correctly, not whether they are ribbed or studded. Finding a condom that fits is what really matters.
Question: How do sizes actually work?
Answer: Unfortunately, they mostly don’t in the U.S. The reasons are much too complicated to explain here, but there’s a good in-depth explanation here on slate.
As a guy, your best bet is to buy a bunch of condoms and practice masturbating with them to see what feels best and fits best on your penis before you try to stick it in someone else. Or to get good at using female condoms.
Question: Are flavored condoms really bad for non-oral sex?
Answer: This depends on how much you like the natural taste and smell of vaginas or anuses. Unless they have sweeteners on them (which they certainly should not–sugar in the vagina causes yeast infections–but most of them unfortunately don’t come with an ingredients list), there’s nothing wrong with using flavored condoms for vaginal sex. There’s never anything uniquely risky about using flavored condoms for anal sex; personally, I prefer the smell of fake banana to natural shit, so I call that a win. It is true that you tend to end up with artificially fruity-smelling genitalia after having sex with flavored condoms, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
Question: Really, is there any way to have sex with a condom that’s as good as without?
Answer: Sort-of. As a woman, I can honestly say that the best sex I’ve had with a condom has been better than the worst sex I’ve had without one, and I’ve talked to many men who have said the same. Will the best sex without a condom be as good as the best sex with a condom? Probably not. But I think this is an instance when the perfect is the enemy of the good.