A female condom is a device that is used during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs—such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV). Invented by Danish MD Lasse Hessel, it is worn internally by the receptive partner and physically blocks ejaculated semen from entering that person's body. Female condoms have been available now for over 15 years.
The Female Condom was first made from polyurethane. This version is officially called the "FC Female Condom". Newer iterations are made of nitrile polymer and called "FC2 (this material change was announced in September 2005). The newer nitrile condoms are less likely to make potentially distracting crinkling noises. It is hoped the nitrile condoms will also allow for significant reductions in female condom pricing. This line of condoms is manufactured by the The Female Health Company, USA. FC1 and FC2 are the only female condoms approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for purchase by UN agencies. They are sold under many brand names, including Reality, Femidom, Dominique, Femy, Myfemy, Protectiv and Care.
A recent version of the female condom is made from natural latex, the same material used in male condoms. This condom does not make the noises some experience with plastic condoms. This type of female condom is manufactured by Medtech Products Ltd, India. It is sold under many brand names, including Reddy, V Amour, L'amour, VA WOW Feminine condom, and Sutra. One more clinical trial is required before it can be considered for FDA approval in the United States.
The global health nonprofit Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) has developed a female condom tailored for use in developing countries.
Some early tests suggested the Female Condom offered better protection than male condoms, but real-world tests found the original FC to be less effective than male condoms at preventing pregnancy for most people:
The effectiveness of the female condom at preventing STDs has not been studied to the same extent as male condoms, however it has been put forth that it should have similar effectiveness to preventing pregnancy. Female condoms are better at preventing some STIs than the traditional condom, this is because they cover more skin, which is the main way skin-to-skin viruses are contracted, such as herpes. They are also dangerous for those who have polyurethane allergies. Sensitivities to silicone or polyurethane may also be a problem.
Re-using the polyurethane Female Condom is not considered as safe as using a new one, however the W.H.O. says, "Batches of new, unused female condoms were subjected to seven cycles of disinfection, washing, drying and re-lubrication, reflecting the steps and procedures in the draft protocol, but at considerably higher concentrations of bleach and for longer durations. All female condom batches met the manufacturing quality assessment specifications for structural integrity after the test cycles. ... Disinfection, washing, drying, re-lubrication and reuse of the device were not associated with penile discharge, symptomatic vaginal irritation or adverse colposcopic findings in study volunteers." A presentation at the 1998 International AIDS conference concluded that "washing, drying and re-lubricating the female condom up to ten time does not significantly alter the structural integrity of the device. Further microbiological and virological tests are required before re-use of the female condom can be recommended."
Sales of female condoms have been disappointing in developed countries, though developing countries are increasingly using them to complement already existing family planning and HIV/AIDS programming. Probable causes for poor sales are that inserting the female condom is a skill that has to be learned and that female condoms can be significantly more expensive than male condoms (upwards of 2 or 3 times the cost). Also, reported "rustling" sounds during intercourse turn off some potential users, as does the visibility of the outer ring which remains outside the vagina.
In November 2005, the World YWCA called on national health ministries and international donors to commit to purchasing 180 million female condoms for global distribution in 2006. Their statement stated that "Female condoms remain the only tool for HIV prevention that women can initiate and control", but that they remain virtually inaccessible to women in the developing world due to their high cost of 72¢ per piece. If 180 million female condoms were ordered, the price of the female condom was projected to decline to 22¢ per female condom.
In 2005, 12 million female condoms were distributed to women in the developing world. By comparison, between 6 and 9 billion male condoms were distributed that year.