The long history of the condom
Condoms come out of the shadows thanks to latex!
The condom, which had been previously known and used for centuries, only really emerged from the shadows during the Age of Enlightenment. Casanova used the words "English overcoat" to describe the "French letter" or condom made from lambskin that was adopted by English diplomats attending the Congress of Utrecht in order to protect themselves from venereal diseases and in particular from syphilis that the French called "Naples disease" and the Italians called "French decay".
Although only used in alcoves, and often condemned, the object was already internationally-known under various names, much like the diseases it helped to prevent.
A century later, manufacturers exploiting the Goodyear patent thought they had struck gold. Unfortunately, their condoms made by wrapping strips of rubber around a penis-shaped mould were less popular than those of their competitors made from natural gut. It would be another twenty years before Scotsman Mackintosh would garner success in 1870 with his thin latex "English sheathes".
Dura lex, sed latex!
The process of liquid latex dipping, developed in 1912, enabled thinner, more flexible and even textured condoms to be manufactured. In addition to the condom's preventive properties, pleasure now began to enter into the equation. However, religious authorities, temperance leagues, and natalists condemned its use as a contraceptive. Thus, banned from being advertised and its use prohibited, the condom was sold under the cloak and rendered unable to even vaunt its health virtues. And tough luck if the soldiers of the Great War had to suffer as a result!
Although the American condom was not subject to the same restrictions during the Great Depression, it was only "because it is cheaper than having children." The more pragmatic General Staff of the Allied Forces would include it in the packages intended for GIs, with the slogan: "put it on before you put it in!"
The Liberation of occupied Europe led to the liberation of social mores and subsequently to a prudent rehabilitation of the "rubber" when the youth discovered Rock and Roll. Northern Europe, more liberal still, even acknowledged its use as a contraceptive. Manufacturers started to innovate once again! Durex would launch the first lubricated condom in 1957.
The advent of AIDS would put the final nail in the coffin of conservatism in the 1980s. However, France only authorised condoms to be advertised in 1987…and only for the prevention of STDs. The final restrictions on condom advertising would be lifted only in 1991.
Seductive new polymers
Having become a public health issue, the use of condoms went from a preventive measure to a prescription. Fear not being an effective counsellor, official campaigns adopted a playful tone. This encouraged manufacturers to go one step further, basing their own campaigns around humour or ideas of glamour. Once the matter of safety had been addressed, all condoms being subject to stringent standards such as those applicable to medical equipment, manufacturers let their imaginations run wild in order to attract users. Coloured and scented condoms first appeared in 1995.
Two years later, Durex launched the first polyurethane condoms intended for those rare users, less than 3%, who are allergic to natural latex. Bingo! Stronger, transparent, odourless and extra-thin, barely 45 microns thick, the product attracted more than just its intended demographic and found favour with those who enjoyed a more natural feel, despite being more expensive.
Polyurethane would soon find competition in polyisoprene, an elastomer that is very similar to latex although much stronger, enabling it to be only 20 microns thick and giving the illusion of wearing nothing at all.
The art of discretion
Estimated at 27 billion units sold recently, against 20 billion in 2010, the global consumption of condoms has opened up exciting growth prospects for innovation. Although fineness is a decisive criterion for consumers, the proliferation of "fun" condoms confirms that consumers also want stimulating products. The Juvasanté laboratory developed a condom with micro-pearls embedded in its surface and a ribbed upper portion targeted at women rather than the user. Manix and Durex, more concerned with erectile performance, offer condoms containing a Benzocaine-based stimulant.
Most manufacturers remain convinced that condoms need to be discrete. As a result, they have developed anatomically-designed models and models in various sizes; one American brand even has 95 different sizes on offer and a template on their website helps users to select the best fit. The Dutch-developed Wingman managed to attract users who want to be able to put on a condom quickly and safely thanks to its condom that comes with a plastic clip that helps with unrolling.
High performance polymers in all respects
The competition organised by the Bill Gates Foundation in 2013 gave a measure of the palpable energy in the field of research on condoms.
Among the eleven finalists, two teams, one Indian and the other British, added an elastomer, graphene, to the latex in order to develop an extremely thin condom with improved elasticity and resistance and offering an improved transmission of heat. In this race for thinness, the super-elastomer technology developed by the University of Tennessee is trying to get there first.
The University of Oregon team developed a condom that perfectly moulds the shape of the penis under the effect of heat thanks to "shape memory" polyurethane.
In the same vein, researchers at the California Family Health Council developed an ultra-thin enveloping prototype building on the adhesive properties of polyethylene, as seen in cling film. The English company Cambridge Design Partnership opted for an anisotropic composite material, which provides condoms with a specific elasticity in each direction.
In the end, the silicone "accordion" condom developed by Origami Condom took the trophy with its design that has three major advantages. In addition to the material's hypoallergenic and mechanical properties, its concept for a folding condom, not one that needs to be unrolled, is very ergonomic at all stages of its use. It is also available in three versions depending on the type of intercourse, vaginal or anal, and the user's penis.
The female condom lacks in discretion
Designed in the early 20th century, then reinvented by a Danish physician in 1984, the female condom remains a marginalised product. After 25 years of being marketed in over 130 countries, the only female-initiated means of contraception and sexual protection remains largely inaccessible. The results are damning: there are over 300 types of male condoms available and only a single female condom.
The polyurethane or acrylonitril vaginal sheath has proven its effectiveness; therein does not lie the problem. Most studies show that it is no less tolerated than male condoms. Some people even prefer it for various reasons: transparency, lack of allergic reactions, increased stimulation due to the softness of nitril, the fact that it conducts heat very efficiently, and the ring on the outside. In addition, the condom can be placed several hours before intercourse, and kept for several hours after./p>
Why, then, is it still the black sheep of prevention? Its users most often deplore the noise it makes, which they find unpleasant, and its unglamorous appearance which reminds them, in their own words, of "a garbage bin" or a "Quechua tent".
Thus attired, female genitals are not really shown in their best light! The problem is magnified by the apparent size of the unwrapped plastic cylinder to be inserted. However, in most cultures, the "obscure object of desire" remains shrouded in mystery as opposed to the male organ whose erection is often valued as a mark of manhood. Given that it is intended for markets in which women suffer from inequality of status, the female condom would benefit from being more discrete, and as unobtrusive as male condoms!