a woman holding up a condom with two hands

When I was in graduate school, I was working on my thesis on how condoms prevent the spread of HPV, which lead to one of my nicknames. Remember, my last name is pronounced Dean, and it rhymes with bean or even with Queen. Ready to learn my nickname?  

Barb Dehn, the Condom Queen!  

I love it! I’m all about condoms!  I’m all about people connecting, having fun, mutually consensual, safe sex. Condoms truly are a girl’s and a guy’s best friend. While writing my thesis, I was also working in a free clinic caring for many sex workers. This was at the time when the number of people with AIDS and HIV was increasing. That meant I was spending a lot of time teaching people about how to use condoms, how to talk to their partners about using them, and how to stay safe. 

Back then, we used the term STDs, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, but now we refer to them as STIs. Why the change to sexually transmitted infection (STI)? There are a couple of reasons. One is that the medical community wanted to educate and be more precise with the terms they use. 

Many sexually transmitted diseases do first begin as sexually transmitted infections. Infection occurs when bacteria or a virus makes its way into our body and begins to grow. Disease occurs when these invaders begin to disrupt the body’s normal functions and symptoms of an illness appear.

Stigma Doesn’t Help

Another reason is that there was a lot of shame and blame around long-used terms like venereal disease (VD) so that was replaced with sexually transmitted disease. Keeping the public healthy depends upon people coming forward and seeking help from their provider, and they are more likely to do that if they are not going to be judged, shamed, or stigmatized.

STIs and STDs on The Increase

After such a long period of quarantine and distancing due to the coronavirus, many in the health field are bracing for more infections, especially when the delta variant surge subsides.

David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, said on NBC, “We are expecting the summer of love.” People are going to be connecting this summer as they come out of the pandemic and we think that is, unfortunately, going to drive STI rates even higher.” 

Unfortunately, STI rates have been rising for years. More than 2.5 million infections were reported in 2019, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in May. Chlamydia cases have increased by19 percent since 2015 and gonorrhea by 56 percent. Syphilis jumped 74 percent.

And, I’m seeing this in my practice already. As more and more people rush to connect or re-connect, inevitably we start sharing all sorts of experiences, including touch and our body fluids from kissing and every other conceivable way to be intimate.

I leave emergency slots open for the inevitable, “OMG, I think I have something, I want to be tested for everything!” call that comes in after a fun weekend. 

Best Answer is the Condom

Latex condoms for men offer 80% or greater protection against most sexually transmitted diseases even when not used correctly. It jumps to up to 95% effective at preventing the transmission of HIV when used properly. 

What does it mean to use properly, you ask? The condom has to go on before any penetration, and someone has to remember to reach down to gently hold it on after ejaculation when withdrawing. See the end of the article for more tips.

But, as we know, it is not always easy to get people to do what is healthiest and best for their own health and to protect a partner. Some are resistant to a lack of education and exposure to information. 

People don’t know how to use one and therefore are not comfortable trying. There are also complaints (mainly from men) about the way condoms feel and how they impact their sexual experience.  Yes, it’s true, wearing a condom is not the same and it does change the experience. Wearing a condom can also help some men last longer, and there is often peace of mind knowing they are protecting themselves and their partners.

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, or how many partners you have or your partner has, using condoms reduces the risks not only of STIs, like hepatitis or herpes but also reduces the chance you’ll have a vaginal or urinary tract infection. 

Another Reason–Latex Allergy

Also, approximately 4.3% of people worldwide are allergic to latex. The alternatives such as polyurethane or natural membrane condoms also have issues. Polyurethane condoms are more prone to break than latex condoms, and natural membrane condoms are porous and do not block some STI pathogens including hepatitis B and HIV.

So, researchers are on a quest for a better, thinner, condom that more people can and will want to use.

Latest Condom Technology

One of the innovative materials being researched is graphene, an ultrathin single layer of carbon atoms that has been called the world’s thinnest, lightest, strongest, and best heat conductive material. Combined with latex or polyurethane, it could possibly increase the strength of condoms by 60% while making them 20% thinner.

Another research group at the University of Queensland, Australia is working on condoms that combine latex with fibers from a native Australian grass called spinifex. Spinifex resin is extracted and used to reinforce latex resulting in a film that was up to 17% stronger and could be made thinner, they are hoping for up to 30% thinner. 

Self-Lubricating Hydrogel

Scientists at Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Wollongong, also in Australia, hope to replace latex with a new material called “tough hydrogel”. Hydrogels are polymer networks that soak up water. Usually, this means a soft and squishy product. But those being worked on here will retain moisture yet be strong, and stretchy–great for a condom.  A bonus, as the hydrogel contains water, they are also self-lubricating or can be designed to contain built-in anti-STD medication to be released during use.

Of course, you have to actually use the condom correctly and regularly to get the full benefits.

Tips on Proper Use

• Check the expiration date: Yes, just like milk, they expire! As they age, they lose their elasticity which can lead to breaking and small micro-tears that allow fluids to seep out.

• Open mindfully: Move the condom out of the way before gently tearing open the package. And no teeth or scissors…even if you are in a hurry.

• Squeeze any air out of the tip: Hold the tip closed above the penis and then roll down. It’s important to leave this little reservoir of space so that any semen has somewhere to go and the condom doesn’t explode….

• Put the condom on the head of the erect penis, and unroll the condom down to the base: That reservoir should stick up like a little hat and the rim should be visible and ready to roll down.

• Before withdrawal: Hold the condom in place at the base with a finger as you move away from your partner to avoid slippage.

• Remove carefully: Grasping at the base slowly slide the condom up and off while the penis is still erect. Dispose of in the trash. No, reuse is not an option!

• No oil with latex condoms: No petroleum jelly (Vaseline), lotion, baby oil, butter, or cooking oils. Oil damages latex condoms and may cause them to break. You can use a water-based lubricant. 

For more on lubricants, see my video: Slippery Subject

And remember, you always have a choice. A partner who values their experience over your safety may not be someone you want to spend your time with. Just saying… you get to choose who is invited into your life and the special club; that is time with you.

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