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Along the Latex Highway
Naked Sex, the Female Condom, and New Microbicides

By David Salyer

January 2000

David SalyerAmerican women prefer naked sex, according to Mary Ann Leeper, founder and president of the Female Health Company in Chicago. Leeper's company markets the Reality female condom, a polyurethane, baggie-like condom women insert into the vagina to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Recently interviewed in USA Today, Leeper expressed her frustration with American women. "I thought women would want to be empowered," she says. "I thought women would want to take care of themselves, but women want to be empowered in the board room but not in the bedroom."

Ms. Leeper has certainly mastered the art of uppity generalizations, opting to blame consumers while seemingly oblivious to the facts about her company's product. For instance, since winning approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, very little has been done to market Reality to American women or even introduce it to the general population. In almost six years of safer sex workshops no one has ever asked me what a male condom is or looks like. Men are routinely surprised when I pull out a female condom, with the exception of some gay men, who like to use it occasionally for anal intercourse. Ms. Leeper certainly doesn't want to talk about that, nor does she seem inclined to acknowledge that Reality is almost impossible to find on drugstore shelves and that it requires skill and patience to insert into the vagina.

About 70% of Reality condom sales have been in developing countries. Mary Ann Leeper claims those women know they're at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. I would suggest what Leeper knows about those women could probably fit in a female condom. Women in Cameroon and Zimbabwe are scrambling for life's necessities, not STD brochures. In several countries with less puritanical views about sex than the United States, female condoms are purchased in bulk and women receive education at the time of distribution. For Ms. Leeper's information, America could use a few more women like Carol Rogers, a physician's assistant at the Philadelphia Health Department who has distributed a million Reality condoms since 1995. Rogers counsels women about the female condom and advocates its use as an alternative contraceptive. Now that's empowerment.

I'm an advocate of Reality. Women can insert it hours before sex. It's durable. And it's a compromise for women who want protection and men who refuse to wear a male condom. Unfortunately, Mary Ann Leeper and her Female Health Company can't seem to get the word out. I guess it hasn't occurred to them to run an ad on MTV (where I see Trojan commercials) or on new rock radio stations (where no subject is taboo). How about a Reality infomercial featuring Madonna, Heather Locklear, Calista Flockhart, Courtney Cox, Elton John and RuPaul? Admit it... you'd watch that.

In fairness, I have to admit that almost every sexually active individual I've ever met, male or female, prefers "naked sex." Finally, scientists have begun to acknowledge this and are currently developing new ways for women to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases. Currently 47 biopharmaceutical firms and research centers are developing microbicides. Microbicides are products women can put in the vagina before sex to kill HIV and other STDs.

Penelope Hitchcock, director of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Branch at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sounds confident about the research. Recently, Hitchcock was quoted in USA Today saying, "We're able to disinfect the skin and do surgery. We're able to treat infections in the vagina. We're able to deliver a drug into the vagina. Conceptually, this is a very solid product-development effort." Worldwide, women overwhelmingly support this research according to the European Union's HIV/AIDS program. Their survey of women in 12 countries indicates that up to 80% of them would like to get their hands on a safe, effective vaginal microbicide.

Microbicidal developers are working on the following:

In most cases, women could use these new microbicides without detection. They're "hidden barriers" that may mercifully eliminate erection problems associated with condoms. With some, women can protect against disease and still be able to get pregnant...or use them with a spermicide to avoid pregnancy. The only bad news is that it may be another two years before you and I can purchase these microbicides at the drugstore.

And while I'm excited about all this progress toward making vaginal intercourse safer and less complicated, I want to know why those 47 biopharmaceutical firms and research centers don't seem interested in a rectal microbicide for anal intercourse. I think I speak for almost every gay and bisexual man on the planet when I say, "Hellooooo! Wake up and smell the latex, people. You're missing out on a BIG market here. We want our ButtGel and ProButt 2000!"

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