Is $500,000 Enough to Get Anyone to Use the Female Condom?
Free female condoms have been sitting on the counter at Jasmine’s Hair Gallery in Anacostia for one week, but the contraceptive device has yet to make it out of the salon and into a woman’s vagina. Last week, a representative from a local nonprofit came down to Jasmine’s equipped with a few dozen female condoms—and two sets of rubber genitalia—in order to instruct the salon’s owner, Terry Nelson, on the finer points of the device. Nelson, 50, is the last stop in the female condom’s long activist conga line—a system set up to distribute the condom from the D.C. government, down through five local nonprofits, and finally out to hundreds of local businesses, where the device can be casually promoted to the public through trusted neighborhood fixtures. Theoretically.
“This is really new,” says Nelson. “We’re still in the stage where we’re trying to see if women will be receptive to this or not.” So far, Nelson and Cecelia Woodland, 49, the other Jasmine’s stylist to soak up the demonstration, haven’t yet tested out the female condom themselves. They haven’t found the right opportunity to raise the topic with any of their customers. And no one’s plucked a device from their tidy stack on the Jasmine’s shelf.
The D.C. government has invested a lot of energy in figuring out how to get women to pick this thing up. This year, Washington will be the first city to roll out a large-scale promotion aimed at getting women to use a form of contraception few even consider. Thanks to a $500,000 grant from makeup company M.A.C., five local nonprofits will distribute 500,000 free female condoms at hair salons, barber shops, health centers, nail salons, and liquor stores around D.C., where owners are being recruited to tout female condom promotion to customers. The condoms will also be available for sale at 56 local CVS stores.
Here’s what you may not know without getting the full, rubber genital demonstration: The first barrier method controlled by women, the female condom is a loose, synthetic rubber sheath that women can insert into the vagina before sex—and that will stay in place by means of flexible rings on both ends. The FDA approved the female condom in 1993 as a revolutionary tool in the fight against HIV, but objections to it have mostly centered around aesthetic concerns. Women who tried the device had one major complaint: the distracting sounds of crinkling, squishing, or rustling emanating from the vagina.
Enter the FC2, the female condom’s new generation. Like its predecessor, the FC2 is manufactured by the Chicago- and London-based Female Health Company, but it’s been tweaked to mute the grocery bag soundtrack (and cut the retail price by 30 percent—a three-pack at CVS goes for $6.49). But for all the female condom’s plusses, its advocates must still navigate between promoting the device as a crucial tool for preventing HIV infection in women and situating the condom as a socially acceptable sexual accessory.
For years, female condom promotion has focused on women in desperate need of the device—like sex workers or women in coercive or violent sexual relationships, whose sex partners refuse to use the male version. Now, female condom promoters have discovered that to protect high-risk women, they must first reinforce the idea that the device is a normal—and yes, sexy—option for all women. “We’re trying to reach that critical threshold,” says Shannon Hader, director of D.C.’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration (HAHSTA). “So if you have 10 women in a room, it’s not necessary that all 10 try out the female condom—but if a few of them have tried it, if your best friend has tried it, if half of you are familiar with it and know about it, then there’s a higher comfort level with the product when you’re introduced to it.”
But female condom advocates have to do much more than throw out some free protection and wait for women to bite. Women have to be wooed to the condom. “Just giving women the female condom doesn’t necessarily inspire them to use it,” says Abby Charles, a program director for the Women’s Collective, one of the nonprofits funded by the M.A.C. grant. “We’ve found that we’ve had to do a lot more training around the female condom. At the trainings we’ve done so far, women start by saying, ‘Mmm—what’s that.’ You know?” Charles says the trainings often start from scratch. “There are a lot of women who don’t understand their bodies. When they take a look a the female condom, they’re confused by it. They think it’s pretty complex. A lot of the training is just helping women to understand the structure of our bodies.…At the end of the training, I would say 90 percent of them are ready to try it on.”
How exactly does a woman just spring a previously inserted protection device on her partner? Part of the training around the female condom includes translating the device’s prevention features into bedroom-ready talking points. For every FC2 feature meant to help protect against HIV, there’s another sexy twist. The condom can be deployed in anticipation of a partner or client who may show up to force unprotected sex. In other words, the device “increases spontaneity” and doesn’t “interrupt lovemaking.” The female condom is often touted as a bargaining point for women in coercive sexual relationships. But those kinds of conversations can also “encourage intimacy.” And the external ring that stretches the condom over the woman’s vulva, protecting her from sexually transmitted infections like herpes? That ring can also stimulate the clit.
When D.C. rolled out its new female condom campaign last week, it scored extra sexy points with the help of rock stars Cyndi Lauper and Lady Gaga. The ladies are the new faces of M.A.C.’s “VIVA Glam” campaign, which encourages HIV awareness among women. Gaga has this to say about her prevention device of choice: “It’s for the everyday woman,” Gaga declares in a M.A.C. PSA. “Anybody can wear it and feel great about themselves, and that’s what VIVA Glam is all about…awareness, and identity.” Gaga was speaking, of course, of her new M.A.C. lip color, “VIVA Glam Gaga,” a light-blue-pink shade. (Proceeds of the cosmetic sales will go toward HIV prevention).
It’s easier to talk about the eternal themes of HIV awareness than it is to start a conversation about a new loose, lubricated bag and why women should insert it into their bodies. But Gaga is just the face of female HIV prevention—not its vagina. So in order to encourage a more intimate knowledge of the female condom, local nonprofits are staging educational sessions around the District, encouraging business owners to pass the FC2 promotion onto their patrons. It’s the fantasy imagined by every birth-control commercial—women just hanging out, talking frankly about their vaginal health. “Women talk to women. We all talk to each other,” says Hader. She wouldn’t disclose whether she’d tried it out herself. “I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t want people to think that we’re asking that when we come around,” she says. “I am familiar with the product. I’ve touched it, I’ve felt it. It’s not a new product to me.”
The D.C. government is hoping that District hairstylists will be more forthcoming. “People are comfortable talking to their hairstylist about anything. You get to feeling like social workers sometimes,” says Nelson. But stylists can’t just start chatting FC2 with every customer dropping in for a trim. “They have to bring up the conversation,” says Nelson. In order to be on the receiving end of Nelson’s female condom spiel, customers don’t have to specifically name-check the device—“but if they bring up sex, say they’re dating around, finding a new partner, I might mention it to them,” says Nelson. Suitable “ins” for the female condom talk arise between Nelson and her clients “about three to four times a week,” she says—they just haven’t come up yet.
Early in the afternoon at Jasmine’s Hair Gallery, a woman comes in, settles in a salon chair, leans her head back for a shampoo, and starts talking. Somehow, one of Jasmine’s female condoms has ended up in her hand. “What do they do with it?” she asks Nelson. “They stick it up in you?” Nelson and Woodland are quick with the talking points. You do stick it up in you. It stays in place near your cervix, like a diaphragm. You can put it in whenever you want. It conforms to the inside of your body. The rings provide extra stimulation. The condom wraps around the outside to protect you from other STDs. The customer does not appear entirely convinced. “Well. I’m allergic to latex anyway,” the customer says, dropping the condom into her lap. “It’s not latex! It’s not latex!” Nelson and Woodland both call out, stepping over each other to mention that the FC2’s made of synthetic rubber. Of course, it’s possible this conversation would never be happening had I not been in the salon, prompting these women to openly discuss rubber genitals, clitoral stimulation, and herpes for the past 20 minutes. Either way, we’ve got our first taker: After getting dried off, the woman walks out the door with an FC2 in hand.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery