April 12, 2010
With Black women experiencing sky-high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, public health officials and women's groups are employing new tools to empower them to protect themselves. The latest gadget? FC2, the second-generation female condom. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene started distributing the condom in November; Chicago-area women are attending educational sessions to learn how to use it; and Washington, D.C., is handing out free FC2s in beauty salons and convenience stores.
"Without female condoms, women are completely dependent on the willingness of a male partner to use the condom," says Jessica Terlikowski, public-policy manager for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Terlikowski is spearheading that city's female-condom outreach campaign, dubbed Put a Ring on It, after the catchy Beyoncé tune "Single Ladies" and the rings that are on each end of the female condom.
But FC2 isn't just for "all the single ladies." Female-condom fans include married and other partnered women, who are also at risk for HIV and other STDs.
"I find the female condom much more comfortable than a male condom," says Cecilia Boyd, a Chicago female-condom aficionado, who uses FC2s for protection against STDs as well as for birth control. "This one is very easy to use correctly," she says (go here to watch an educational video demonstrating how). Her partner is also on board: "He completely likes it. The male condom is too tight on his shaft."
Before the FC2 came along, Boyd had used the FC1 instead of male condoms because of a "slight latex allergy." She finds the FC2, which is made of synthetic latex, a big improvement over the older version, made of polyurethane plastic. "It's not as noisy as the first one," she says. "I would tell women not to feel put off by it because it looks so big," she adds. "I love it, and if I can get other women to use it, that's my goal."
Noisy during sex, somewhat uncomfortable and bulky, FC1s didn't pass muster with women. They were also expensive: around $3.60 each, versus male condoms at about a dollar. Women who use FC2s are feeling the serious upgrade: They're quieter, more comfortable and much cheaper, averaging 86 cents each. You can also use FC2s with oil-based lubricants, unlike latex condoms and FC1s.
The FC2 resembles an oversized male condom. The difference is that the FC2 (like the FC1) sports two rings -- a removable inner ring that's inserted into the vagina and an outer ring that stays attached, covering the vaginal lips. The outer ring helps protect against STDs spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as herpes and the human papillomavirus (HPV). The inner can be removed, if the user prefers, for anal sex. Like male condoms, female condoms are for onetime use only.
And ladies, take note: The female condom's outer ring provides clitoral stimulation.
Authorities in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., aren't concerned with helping women achieve better orgasms. But they are interested in fighting the HIV epidemic -- particularly among Black women, who are disproportionately infected. Nationwide, AIDS is the number one killer of Black women ages 25 to 34. Washington, D.C., where the FC2 is getting the biggest push, has the nation's highest HIV rate among Black women -- 3 percent -- as well as the nation's highest overall rate: 5 percent.
"Women haven't really gotten the message that they're at risk," said Shannon L. Hader, M.D., M.P.H., director of HAHSTA, the D.C. health department's HIV/AIDS administration, in an interview on CNN. "So we are very, very concerned with making sure that women in the District realize that HIV, in fact, is a woman's disease too."
Elsewhere, the only way to get FC2s is through nonprofits and health centers that have ordered them in bulk. But if grassroots demand develops, they will become more widely available. (FC1 female condoms can still be found in some drugstores; don't mistake them for FC2s.) So tell your local drugstore's pharmacy manager, "I know about the new FC2 female condom and would like you to sell them here." Or contact the manufacturer, Female Health Company.