A Brief History of Safe Sex

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It's been exactly 15 years since the FDA first approved the "female condom," but it still hasn't found its niche, except perhaps in the sex trade. While engineers at Apple have already released the next iteration of the 18-month-old iPhone, a second-generation version of the lady-centric contraceptive still doesn't exist.

But the Chicago-based Female Health Company is hoping to change that. Its redesigned product is being reviewed by the FDA and, if approved, could be available for sale in the U.S. sometime next year. As a "Class 3 medical device," the female condom is held to the same rigorous FDA standards as pacemakers, heart valves and silicone breast implants, with clinical trials costing as much as $6 million. Male condoms, on the other hand, only need to pass breakage tests and are, therefore, much cheaper to produce. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

Complaints about female condoms are not so different from those about the male version: slippery, noisy, awkward, uncomfortable. "The yuck factor was a problem," Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, told the New York Times last year about the device's failure to catch on. Then there's the stigma associated with buying condoms, a topic even The Golden Girls once addressed.

Then again, the history of protected sex, in the broadest sense, used to be a whole lot yuckier. Take the practice of women in ancient Egypt who resorted to using crocodile dung as a spermicide. Modern research has shown that crocodile dung actually created optimum conditions for sperm because of its alkalinity, but the sheer grossness of the practice might have worked — if only by completely ruining the mood. (See pictures of animal attraction.)

In the 1540s, an Italian doctor named Gabriele Fallopius — the same man who discovered and subsequently named the Fallopian tubes of the female anatomy — wrote about syphilis, advocating the use of layered linen during intercourse for more "adventurous" (read: promiscuous) men. Legendary lover Casanova wrote about his pitfalls with medieval condoms made of dried sheep gut, referring to them as "dead skins" in his memoir. Even so, condoms made of animal intestine — known as "French letters" in England and la capote anglaise (English riding coats) in France — remained popular for centuries, though always expensive and never easy to obtain, meaning the devices were often reused.

In 1844 Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanizing rubber, inadvertently ushering in an entirely new era in contraception — condoms as thick as bicycle tires and still considered reusable. But getting one's hands on this newfangled "technology" became a whole lot harder in 1873, when Congress passed the Comstock Law, prohibiting the transportation of obscene material like prophylactics and pornography.

The 1930s saw the invention of latex as well as the invention of the first female condom in the U.S., the "Gee Bee Ring." In 1965 the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had the constitutionally protected right to contraception; in 1972 that same right was extended to unmarried couples. (Ireland prohibited condom sales until 1978, and the Catholic Church still condemns them.)

Condom use waned in the 1960s after the introduction of the birth control pill and remained stagnant until the arrival of the HIV virus in the 1980s, at which time sales exploded, jumping 33% in the U.S. in 1987. Today some 6 billion condoms are sold worldwide each year, though sales have plateaued in the past decade — policy experts blame "prevention fatigue," while condom makers (the ones targeting men, anyway) have responded by becoming increasingly creative, or perhaps ridiculous. What began as a simple choice between lubricated, ribbed or custom-fit now includes flavored, novelty (Star Wars prophylactic, anyone?) and glow-in-the-dark. One can even purchase condom accessories like the $28 Condo-M, a plastic-and-aluminum bedside container. (Think Pez dispenser for grownups.) Even the presidential campaign spawned Barack Obama– and John McCain–themed condoms with corresponding slogans ("Who says experience is necessary?" for the former; "Old, but not expired" for the latter). (Read about permanent birth control.)

The origin of the word condom is unknown, though the story of a certain Dr. Condom in 19th century England remains one of the more persistent myths. The term at least trumps intravaginal pouch, a phrase suggested in lieu of female condom by an FDA panel tasked in the early 1990s with reviewing an early prototype of the women's contraceptive.

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