"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Challenge Of The Next Generation Of Condoms–Bill Gates And The Pleasure Principle

I flogged condoms for over forty years in the developing world and started way before the AIDS epidemic.  In the Seventies condoms were promoted for birth control only, but played second fiddle to the Pill which was far more convenient and effective.  The Pill not only provided nearly complete contraceptive protection, it promised African and Asian women the same sexual liberation enjoyed by women of America.  Husbands never had to know about the Pill, and women could let them hump away knowing that they would not have yet another child. 

Injectable contraceptives offered an even better alternative. Women always forgot to take their pills, and uneducated women often misunderstood the directions.  If they mislaid their pills and missed a few days, they just took a handful of what was left in the pack.  Protection rates for the Pill were never as good as those advertised; and ‘injectables’ were a godsend for women who never understood conception in the first place.   A menstrual cycle was easy enough, but fertility cycles were another thing altogether.  With an injectable a woman never had to remember to take anything, never had to understand her cyclical reproductive system, and could continue to avoid her husband’s prying eyes.

There was plenty of opposition, of course, and not only from conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church. Doctors approved of the Pill, but refused to liberalize its sale and have maintained a tight hold on contraceptive prescriptions to this day even – and especially – in America.

The entire contraceptive landscape changed with the onset of HIV/AIDS.  How could one responsibly promote the Pill when it only prevented pregnancy, not disease? But suggesting to couples that they use both methods was unrealistic, expensive, and almost impossible. Men hated the condom, refused to use it, insisted on male sexual prerogatives, and were suspicious that their wives might pull a few rubbers out of the top drawer and use them with clandestine lovers.

So despite its universal lack of acceptance and extremely high failure rates (most condoms are very successful if used properly, but they rarely are), marketing and promotional efforts turned almost exclusively to the condom  Social marketers were up against a behavioral double-whammy.  Men refused to wear condoms; and women, with no economic or social power, could not force their husbands into compliance.  Men simply said, “Honey, you are my one and only true love” – i.e. I don’t sleep around and put you and me at risk from HIV – but lied through their teeth.  The disease was spread quickly and easily by straying men who screwed prostitutes with astronomical levels of HIV infection and then came home to sleep with their wives.  It was a lose-lose situation.

Nothing seemed to work.  The whole ‘empowerment of women’ thing was a pleasant fiction.  The international aid workers felt good about promoting feminism and the cause of women’s health and well-being; but this commitment seldom translated into action.  Husbands still came home drunk, told their wives to turn over, and screwed their way to sleep.

Later campaigns tried to address men, appealing to their moral responsibility to their wives, partners, and the community at large.  This might have worked among the educated upper classes, but hardly noticed in the village where marriages were arranged, life was short and difficult, and worldview was limited to a few miles.

Even in the United States where teenagers have been badgered, hectored, lectured, and hammered by parents, educators, and community leaders to practice safe sex, over 40 percent do not use them.  It is worse in the gay community where 50 percent of men do not use condoms.

Any sexually active man knows why – condoms are a terrible product.  No matter how attractive they are made and packaged (colored condoms were thought to be revolutionary in the late 70s), no matter how ‘sensitive’ they might be, they are still thick surgical gloves stuck on a man’s most sensitive organ, a pain in the ass to rip open and put on, and a totally unwelcome interruption of the crescendo of sexual pleasure.

Along comes Bill Gates who is offering rich rewards to any company who can produce a condom which increases male pleasure.

Bill Gates has a foundation that works in Africa to treat AIDS and prevent HIV infection. His research demonstrates that most Africans -- like most Americans -- don't wear condoms because the primitive contraption, which has not appreciably changed in 50 years, steals their pleasure. Gates is a practical businessman and a creative inventor. He has proceeded with plans to make a better product after learning that there is widespread dissatisfaction with an existing product. His foundation will give a $100,000 grant to anyone with credible plans to make a condom that "is felt to enhance pleasure." (David Masciotra, The Atlantic, 4.29.13)

Good luck. On the other hand, never underestimate the power of technology and consumer marketing.  In the not-too-distant future, I am sure there will be an ordinary rubber condom fitted with mini-transmitters which will emit tiny pulses to chips implanted in the pleasure sections of the brain.  Once the condom feels warmth, wetness, and rhythmical motion, it will send out signals, and the user becomes delirious with pleasure.

The AIDS epidemic will be over by the time this toy comes on the market, however; and there don’t seem to be any shorter-term solutions on the horizon.  Perhaps a condom that is gossamer thin but of industrial strength and can be put on after dinner on a flaccid penis.  Have a few more drinks, turn down the lights, and the condom expands uniformly without you even noticing.  Or a mini-condom which is affixed only to the head of the penis, perhaps with some new polymer resin that dissolves after a few hours.

The problem with any of these ideas is that men the world over simply want to do things naturally – any mechanical interference with sex, the most intimate and expressive form of human exchange – simply won’t cut the mustard.

Mark S. King, an award winning author and leading advocate for AIDS awareness in the gay community, who is also gay and HIV positive, recently gave a perfect summary of the motivation behind unprotected sex: "We keep talking about barebacking as if it's some kind of psychosis, when really all it is is men behaving naturally."

This sentiment is echoed in heterosexual circles around the world.  If God had intended us to use condoms, he would have given us sexual skin gloves.

The one aspect of condom use that is often downplayed is the interruption factor.  No matter how sensitive the condom is when on, men still have to fumble around on the night table, rip open the pack in the dark, and snap the rubber on tight all while their lover is moaning for pleasure on the bed next to them. When I was in the business, we told people that condoms should be put on together as part of foreplay.  The couple could pick out the condom that most suited their mood – fiery red, ribbed, or rainbow – and then in a great Tantric ritual, fit the lingam with the sacred sheath.  Needless to say this idea fell flat.  Most men wanted to get on with it as quickly as possible, and women had no interest in playing with toys.

I have no clue what a woman feels when that plasticized phallus enters her, but it can’t be all that good. Madonna who should know a bit about sexual encounters has said that condoms are "essential in the age of AIDS," but conceded, "they feel terrible."

Norman Mailer, never shy about his opinions or sexual exploits said:

"The only thing you can depend on with condoms is that they will take 20 to 50 percent off your f***."  Mailer also condemned condoms for making people part of "the social machinery" and destroying "most of the joy of entrance."

Gates’ incentive of $100,000 to develop a pleasurable condom is chickenfeed to researchers or condom companies who are used to major grants.  To his credit Gates has offered more meaningful incentives to pharmaceutical companies to come up with vaccines for TB, HIV, and malaria.  The Gates Foundation would assure these companies a guaranteed market by buying up significant amounts of new vaccines once they have been developed. This initiative, however, seems rather half-hearted and a bit lame.

Maybe all this condom business is unnecessary and a waste of money.  Withdrawal, the oldest contraceptive method on the books is just about as reliable as condoms.  Withdrawal has a failure rate of 4 percent, while condoms just half that at 2 percent.  The whole ‘pre-cum’ debate has apparently been settled; and contrary to popular myth, there are no sperm in pre-cum.

Most men know that withdrawal is an iffy business and can’t understand where the 4 percent figure comes from. It takes one hell of a lot of discipline and self-control to withdraw, especially when your sexually aroused partner is pulling you farther inside her, and wrapping her legs around you (“Don’t go…Don’t go”).

Even if the pre-cum argument has merit, most younger men and older lovers with Viagra hard-ons don’t quit at one sexual intercourse.  If you have had your first bang with a condom, and your second without, the chances that some stubborn little sperm are still in your tubes and canals are pretty good.

The best that can be said for the Gates initiative is that it will open up the discussion to reality. Up until now condoms have been pushed as a matter of duty, responsibility, and obligation; and little of the marketing savvy that characterizes other products is visible when it comes to them.  If we address the reasons why men eschew the use of condoms and try to come up with something more suitable, perhaps we will be more successful than we have been over the last fifty years.

If the Gates initiative, for what his foundation calls the "next generation condom" succeeds, it will spark a new conversation on sexual issues -- one that acknowledges that the truth is always necessary to solve any social problem. No "progress" that uses a lie as an usher is worth welcoming.

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