And what were those results? I was able to find 11 studies published in medical journals or presented at scientific conferences between 1983 and 1999 that attempted to gauge the porosity of lambskin condoms. Most of these studies were very small, testing only a few or a few dozen condoms, which means that their conclusions aren’t exactly watertight, so to speak. Only three studies filled the condoms with solutions that actually contained HIV. Exactly one of the 34 condoms tested in these three studies leaked HIV—a 3 percent failure rate—but that one condom comes with an asterisk: Other researchers later criticized the inconsistent data from the study in which the leaky condom was found, suggesting that a lab technician might have made an error.
If the actress did know the details, she might be disappointed. Polyisoprene is synthetic latex. It is chemically almost identical to latex, but since it’s made from petrochemicals instead of tree fluid, it lacks the proteins that some people are allergic to. To get a sense of just how non-revolutionary Skyn condoms are, look at their FDA application summary, which refers to the product as a “lubricated polyisoprene latex male condom” and confirms that it meets both ASTM and ISO test standards for latex condoms.
But to call polyisoprene “revolutionary”—a term that Durex’s new polyisoprene condom also uses in its marketing materials—is funny and sad. More than 30 years after the AIDS crisis began—more than 30 years after the advent of the safe-sex movement—a synthetic latex condom counts as revolutionary?
If you believe Danny Resnic, hard at work on his Origami condom, polyisoprene is a symptom of Americans’ failure of imagination when it comes to condoms. “When I first told people I was developing a new condom, they went, ‘Well, what could be different about a condom?’ ” he said. “They couldn’t imagine anything different, because there’s never been anything different.” Resnic thinks men have become desensitized by latex condoms. “They’ve come to accept that level of sensation as the maximum.” If they use condoms at all.
Resnic’s original idea was to build the perfect condom, one that wouldn’t break, would protect against all viruses, would feel as good for the wearer as unprotected sex, would be affordable, and would be approved for anal sex by the FDA.
But building a perfect condom is more complicated than he thought. He conducted a few small clinical trials of his silicone model with funding from the NIH, and after incorporating feedback from those trials into his design, he decided to take his male condom in a surprising direction: It will now be made out of latex. Resnic still hopes to incorporate silicone into an internal condom—meant to be worn inside the vagina or anus, like a female condom—which he’ll be testing in South Africa this spring with his $100,000 from the Gates Foundation. But for his male condoms—which will still be roomier than existing condoms and pulled on instead of rolled on—Resnic says it just makes more sense to use latex, which would make it possible to manufacture his condom in existing condom factories.
Resnic also hopes that by making the Origami condom out of latex, he’ll be able to get easy clearance from the FDA. If he can prove to the FDA that the Origami condom is “substantially equivalent” to latex condoms that are already on the market, and that it meets the ASTM and ISO standards for latex condoms, Resnic won’t have to do an expensive, 1,000-use clinical trial—he’ll just be able to sell his condom.
The federal government has spent the last quarter-century telling Americans that latex condoms are our only option for both pregnancy protection and disease prevention. The appeal of the mantra “use a latex condom correctly every time you have sex”—as a Surgeon General’s report put it in 1992, and as has been repeated in innumerable pamphlets and classrooms since—is its simplicity. By endorsing a one-size-fits-all latex template without qualification, the FDA doesn’t have to think about the nuances and messy realities of how people have sex: the fact that anal sex is different from vaginal sex, that penises come in a range of sizes, and that safe sex is a risk-reward calculation, not a perfect solution.
Since I started working on this article, I’ve become fond of polyurethane condoms, which transmit the heat of my partner’s body and don’t get dry. I’ve made this personal risk-reward calculation—you might make a different one, and even stick with latex. The point is, we all need a condom that we’ll actually pull out of our nightstand or wallet and use—and that’s a lot easier to do when sex with that condom feels good.
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