The Truth about Condoms for Women

It has been two and a half years since "Reality," the female condom, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and more than one year since Planned Parenthood and local drugstores began carrying it. But as more women begin using the device, it is apparent that few are aware that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. The female condom is a seven-inch long transparent polyurethane sac that is designed to line the vagina during sexual intercourse. Unlike the male condom which can be used only after a male erection, many revel at the fact that the female condom can be inserted up to eight hours before intercourse. And because of its larger size, some believe it is more comfortable than the male condom. Reality's U.S. manufacturer, Wisconsin Pharmacal Company, Inc., boasts that the device empowers women when men refuse to use a male condom. However, they fail to say the female condom may not be as effective as the male condom in terms of protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and preventing pregnancy. "We do know that it offers protection against STDs, but we don't know how much protection," said Jeanna Flaron, an educational director at Planned Parenthood, who sells the condoms. A spokesperson for The Female Health Company, a division of Wisconsin Pharmacal, also stated that statistics and percentages for transmission of STDs while using the female condom is currently unavailable. But in terms of preventing pregnancy, tests reveal that Reality is only about 76 percent effective -- which means that one in four women who use the device may become pregnant. The male condom is 85 to 90 percent effective in preventing pregnancies, Flaron said. Literature available to patients at PPSA says Reality is also less effective than other contraceptive methods such as the diaphragm and the cervical cap. But according to The Female Health Company, the numbers pertaining to the device's ability to prevent pregnancy may not be totally accurate. On January 31, 1992, the female condom gained a conditional okay from the FDA, pending additional studies on its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. Following the FDA approval, a six-month study was conducted which revealed a 12 percent failure rate for those who use the device but not every time. To come up with a twelve-month failure rate, the FDA simply doubled the six-month percentage, said Claudia Ruiz of The Female Health Company. "But when you use any form of birth control, the more you use a device, the more accurate and consistent the use becomes. Then the failure rates come down," Ruiz said. "For those who use the female condom consistently and correctly every time, the failure rate is much less than 24 percent." According to The Female Health Company, Reality has only a 5 percent failure rate for those who correctly use the device each time they have sex. But many others believe it is unrealistic to think that everyone will use the device correctly and consistently. In addition to higher percentages of pregnancy and its unknown effectiveness in preventing the spread of STDs, female condoms are more costly than male condoms, which in some cases are free at PPSA. At local drugstores, a dozen male condoms cost about ten dollars. Reality is sold in boxes of three with a tube of lubricant for about ten dollars. At Planned Parenthood the cost is five dollars a box. According to Glamour magazine (February, 1995), Lillian Yin, Ph.D., director of the FDA division that regulates birth control said, "The best thing to use is the male latex condom. If your partner does not want to use it, use the female condom."

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