The female condom and feminism: love or contradiction? (Part II)

My first experience with the female condom was couple of months ago. I was approached by a sales promoter of the Cupid on my way home and she convinced me to buy it: I bought two, one for me and another for a very close friend of mine.

For weeks I would stare at the package, squeeze it and read the instructions. The curiosity was either going to kill me or make me stronger, so I decided to try it.

My male partner had never used a female condom before either, so we made the executive decision to start off with the male condom and then swapping to the female condom. I didn’t feel at ease inserting it by myself, so I asked him to do it. I figured that if a woman can insert a male condom on her partner, why can’t the opposite happen?

Even though I had read the instructions many times before, we had to actually stop for a few minutes and read them again. The thing has 10 steps, 8 of which being directly connected to its insertion and use! It was only then that I realized that the sponge stays inside the entire time. We managed to get it right eventually but then there was another problem: something was hurting the penis- I’m guessing it was the sponge- and it was too uncomfortable so we went back to the male condom after a couple of minutes.

I was disappointed at it: too much discomfort and not that much fun, after all. The friend I bought the other condom for has yet to try hers and I’m guessing she never will.

Other friends gave it a try and the stories are not that different from mine.

On a conversation, one friend rhetorically asked why the sponge on the Cupid had to be so big. She says it was painful to put it in, in fact, she too asked her boyfriend to help her, but the worst part was taking it out because the sponge goes out opened.

For men who enjoy giving and women who enjoy receiving oral sex, it can be challenging since a significant part of the vulva remains covered and female condoms usually are not flavored. Although based on my personal experience, this is not a deal breaker, in fact, some guys will be happy to use this as an excuse not to perform oral sex – but this is another post, for another day.

What could be a deal breaker though, is the fact that, according to our male partners, the female condom acts as an obstruction to feel the woman’s lubrication. Whereas the male condom hugs the penis not affecting its sensitivity, the female one stands loose, making it difficult to assess the woman’s sexual arousal.

A third friend, that tried after that conversation, based on the things she had heard decided to surprise her boyfriend, inserting it before they were together. She said “It’s not a matter of having a device that CAN be inserted hours before use; it SHOULD be inserted hours before, actually because it will take you quite a while to get it right.” She adds that she had to use a significant amount of lube. For her boyfriend it didn’t appeal him visually, they don’t plan on repeating the experience.

Sexual intercourse is about mutual pleasure, but the design of the FC seems to inhibit pleasure for the women due to the stress of having to hold it, as a recent study in South Africa points out. Said study highlights that using a condom for the prevention of pregnancy or infections or HIV/AIDS should not mean that the women are not free to enjoy their sexuality.

The experience of sex when wearing a female condom should be as important as the sense of self-empowerment. Regardless of condom performance or efficiency, sex is supposed to be fun and easy, not full of preparation and mechanical maneuvers.

As a feminist myself, I do believe in giving women the correct tools to engage in honest and opened conversations with their partners about their sexuality. For us, women that don’t have problems discussing the topic of sex with our partners; our schoolmates; friends; doctors and more and more with our sisters and/or mothers, the experience of the female condom was a materialization of our sexual freedom: we wanted to try something different; we had the option to do so and we didn’t feel bad about it.  Our male partners were a big part of the decision to use the female condom and even helped, just like this other lady so we should engage men more.

Personally I think healthy sex lives, and ultimately healthy relationships, have to be based on effective communication and fair negotiation and this too has to be part of the feminist agenda along with the female condom. If the female condom acts as a counter attack for women whose partners refuse to use the male condom, than we’re only legitimizing toxic and hostile environments.

There can’t be a Feminism without choice, and in that sense an option for the male condom is a better option than no option at all, and of course, people should try it for themselves and make their judgments. However we should do better than the current available female condoms there is and the female condom has to be a part of a larger strategy to empower women to engage in healthier relationships.

Maybe a male condom is a much better feminist condom than the female one: it causes no discomfort; it’s marketed at both men and women, encouraging couples to share the responsibility; and most of all, it comes in enough shapes, sizes, textures and materials to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Read the Part I here.

The female condom and feminism: love or contradiction? (Part I)

In a country like Mozambique, where HIV prevalence in women is 13,1% versus 9,2% for men, a female condom would indubitably increase the negotiation power for women and offer a different option for safe sex that didn’t depend on the men.

As BBC stated recently, the biggest advantages are the fact that it can be inserted hours before sexual intercourse and that it gives the vulva more protection than a male condom and unlike the first generation of female condoms, the ones currently available don’t make a lot of noise nor have a flawed design.

In Maputo there are female condoms available and although not as much as male condoms, most women have heard about it and even tried it.

A local sales promoter tells me that her male clients are willing to try something new and take a few days off from the male condom. For them, it is an escape. Women, on the other hand, find it intriguing and usually buy it because of the packaging or prizes associated with promotional campaigns.

When talking about female condoms there is a focus on the liberation of women and their empowerment, almost ignoring the very basic nature of a condom: sex. A condom is supposed to be functional for both parties and if anything, add something to their users and not take it away.

The female condom however, is a one-size-fits-all tool. There hasn’t been a lot of investment in terms of different sizes, flavors, textures, materials or even colors.

The main concern seems to be the fact that foreplay won’t be interrupted and male sexual arousal will not be affected by the insertion of a condom. By doing this, men are only offered the fun parts of it, leaving women with all the worries.

On the BBC article, it reads “The female condom is not as tight for men” and the Origami website says “[it can] accommodate a range of penis sizes”. These statements focus sexual pleasure for women, and on a broader level the health of women’s sex lives, on the satisfaction of the men.

Implicitly, if women want safe sex then they should take all the responsibility. Is that what feminism is really about?

There’s the insinuation that female condoms are just for women and male condoms are just for men, when in reality both parts can and should participate on the decision of using a condom and which one to use.

More so, the rhetoric is always about developing countries. Whether it is India or Nigeria, female condoms seem to be good for third world women only. Western women are never the target for female condom use campaigns.

This exposes the reality of the aid industry and the power dynamics that play when it comes to strategic thinking and program designing for HIV prevention in poor/ rural areas. The decision makers, mostly western white middle-class women are unaware of the class differences, racial discrimination and even the fight for democratic governments that play a part in the lives of the women they so want to help, and often impose a feminism centered exclusively on gender inequality.

As bell hooks beautifully said “feminism is for everybody”, but everybody needs to be aware of the environment and people to which they want to direct feminist agenda to and the issues said feminism will tackle.

The relationship between our politics and our sexualities is not always peaceful. Emotionally and intellectually the female condom may appeal to most women – I love the idea of the female condom, but the practicality of it is another story.