Once mocked as having the erotic appeal of a jellyfish, the female condom is being reinvented as the next big thing in protective sex. In the first article from new digital publication Mosaic, Emily Anthes takes an in-depth investigation to see what chance it has of catching on this time around.
In 1987, an American pharmaceutical executive called Mary Ann Leeper flew to Copenhagen to get a first-hand look at what she thought might be the world’s next great health innovation. She didn’t expect to find it tucked away inside an old cigar box.
When she arrived at the old farmhouse owned by Danish doctor and inventor Lasse Hessel, he opened the door with a cigar in his mouth. Then he fetched the box. “Inside were all these bits and pieces – metal, plastic, all different kinds of stuff,” Leeper recalls. “I took a deep breath and thought, ‘Holy mother – what have I gotten myself into?’” Somehow, these bits and pieces fit together to form a contraption that women could wear during sex to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections – the world’s first female condom.
The presentation may have been unconventional, but Leeper and her colleagues at Wisconsin Pharmacal had high hopes for Hesse’s invention. “The Aids crisis in the United States was just fully being recognised, and it was clear to us that for women to have a product that they could use to help protect themselves would be a good thing,” Leeper says.
Indeed, when Wisconsin Pharmacal finally introduced the female condom to the US in 1993, public health experts hailed it as a game-changer. The condom, a polyurethane pouch inserted into the vagina before sex, would protect women from sexually transmitted infections even if their male partners refused to wear condoms.
Technically, the female condom works. When used correctly, it reduces a woman’s risk of contracting HIV by around 94–97% each time she had sex, according to estimates. Studies show that making female condoms available alongside the male version increases the percentage of sexual acts that are protected, and decreases the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections.