By Leah Solomon
The female condom, or femdom, is something that we all get told about in sexual education, but never actually learn about. The femdom is a tubular shaped condom that has an opening at one end, and a flexible ring at the closed end. It is latex free, which is a lot healthier as a lot of people discover that they are sensitive or even allergic to latex only after using a male condom. It can be used with water and silicone and oil-based lubricants. It can even be worn up to eight hours before engaging in sexual intercourse. Despite all this, not many men or women, from all age groups, know where to get them, how to get them or even what they look like.
In a time when gender equality and sexual freedom should be the norm, this is surprising.
But, there are some very practical barriers to its everyday use by South African women.
According to Sonke Gender Justice, the femdom is 36 times more expensive than the male condom.
Some women find the sheer size of the femdom daunting, even off-putting.
Michaella Lampe, a third year Environmental Studies and Anthropology student at Rhodes University says she doesn’t trust the safety of the femdom and she thinks they are “unattractive”.
“Personally, I would feel quite embarassed to use one,” she says.
Women are also worried that the gangly 17cm polyurethane sheath will decrease sexual sensitivity and pleasure.
However, according to Oh Joy, Sex Toy!, a weekly comic that is dedicated to informing the public about everything “sex, sexuality and the sex industry”, explains in a very blunt fashion the benefits of using a femdom and dispels this long-standing stereotype.
Rhodes students Michael* (21) and Sarah* (21) have been in a relationship for three years and are one of very few couples I spoke to that has used a female condom.
“We had tried male condoms and found that neither of us found them as enjoyable as sex without them,” said Michael.
“Sarah approached me about it, and I agreed. We wanted to experiment but still be safe while doing it.”
The couple explained that it was far more enjoyable than the male condom and that people should be more open about trying it out.
“I found it more enjoyable and sensual than sex with a male condom,” said Michael.
“It was easy to use and easy to find. It is a bit uncomfortable, but you get used to it. It didn’t take away from the sex at all,” said Sarah.
But, are femdoms widely available?
Michelle Issacs, the warden of Hobson House at Rhodes University confirmed that her residence is supplied with femdoms.
They can also be found at the Health Care Centre on Rhodes campus, but nowhere else.
Why don’t they have their own dispensers, just like the free male Choice condoms?
HIV/Aids Peer Educator’s Chairperson and third year Social Sciences student, Tholinhlanhla Thwala, says the femdom is not as available on campus because researchers say that women do not want to use it.
“We’d rather provide the students with something that they’re actually going to use,” she said.
However, even though students do not feel compelled to use it, the group still makes an effort to teach on how to use it.
President of the Student HIV and AIDS Resistance Campaign (SHARC), Sanele Ntshingana, explains that the femdom is a great invention as it “creates a good balance”.
However, he says that women do not take the contraceptive seriously “because of the size and the discomfort it creates”.
“I don’t think it’s thriving at all,” he said.
Besides its high price and lack of availability, there are a number of other more deep-seated issues that act as barriers to its adoption.
For one, the female condom was initially targeted at sex-workers.
This created a stigma around it which hindered its movement into acceptance and normalisation.
Although that may not be one’s first thought of it any longer, the femdom is still not viewed as “normal”.
Another negative is its design.
One is able to wear the femdom up to eight hours before having sex.
This aspect of it has made some people think that this is almost an invitation to non-consensual sex; the “I was asking for it” theory.
There is no research backing this up; these thoughts were shared by women when asked about it.
This view on the femdom is detrimental to its progress in a country with an HIV prevalence of 17.5%.
Since 54% of those infected with HIV/Aid are women, one would assume that South Africa would be doing more to protect the female population.
According to Global Citizen, “Between 1998 and 2010 more than 28 million latex first generation (FC1) female condoms were distributed in South Africa and since 2010 more than 15 million nitrile second generation (FC2) female condoms.
“Today, all Primary Health Care facilities are receiving female condom supplies for distribution, together with hundreds of NGOs and other informal distribution sites.”
The female condom provides another option for women whose partners refuse to wear a male condom or women who want to take charge of their own reproductive health.
Yet, in Grahamstown, this information is not widely known.
Women need to know that they too have control and power over their sexual experiences.
*Names changed to protect the anonymity of the students.