New condoms marketed to women say 'Do it with style'
Bumping in to Mr. Big in the very first episode of “Sex in the City,” Carrie Bradshaw drops condoms from her purse.
“No. 1, he’s very handsome. No. 2, he's not wearing a wedding ring. No. 3, he knows I carry a personal supply of ultra-textured Trojans with a reservoir tip,” narrates Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie.
If art indeed was imitating life, this runaway hit series—which will make it to the big screen in May—seemed to reveal that single women of the 90s were comfortable buying and carrying sexual protection.
A decade later, however, many American women are forgetting about condoms, with only 20 percent of single women with multiple partners “always” using a condom over the past year, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research.
“I certainly don’t carry condoms in my purse,” said Kathryn Fromson, 23, a biology teacher who lives in Hightstown, N.J. “It’s one of those things where I would worry I would jinx it. Like the one time you get a bikini wax you don’t have sex.”
Planned Parenthood has set out to make condoms as chic and trendy as lip-gloss by creating a fashionable line of prophylactics called “Proper Attire.” Touted as a ‘must-have accessory,’ they are packaged in small colorful boxes and marketed to women who may feel embarrassed to pick up condoms at the drugstore.
In recent years, mainstream condom brands such as Trojan also began to target women, a trend designed to empower women to take control of their sexual health.
“Women now realize that they can’t rely on a guy to have condoms,” said David Johnson, group product manager of Trojan Brand Condoms. “And most modern guys are starting to realize, ‘if I don’t have them and she does, that doesn’t make her promiscuous, it makes her smart.’ ”
Even so, “there is still a strong cultural notion that condoms are a man’s responsibility and that women who carry them are easy or slutty,” said Ellen Friedrichs, who teaches human sexuality at Rutgers Newark and Brooklyn College.
Proper Attire condoms differ from standard brands only in their packaging, but they are sold at Planned Parenthood health centers nationally and boutique shops such as W Hotels The Store in New York City, where the condoms are on display with jewelry, candles and perfume. Eventually, they will be sold in select boutique shops and hotels across the country, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood said.
The condoms are more expensive than traditional brands, costing $6 for three with the proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood.
“When you put that higher price tag on safer sex it makes me wonder,” said Jayme Waxman, a sex educator in New York City. “But a certain type of person might be inclined to buy condoms in a more discreet shopping environment. More power to Planned Parenthood if they can help spread the word to women who have forgotten about condoms.”
While the concept for the Proper Attire condom packaging was developed years before the Centers for Disease Control’s alarming statistics revealed in March that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted infection, Planned Parenthood now interprets the statistic to suggest women don’t have what they need to protect themselves.
“Women are more likely to make contraceptive decisions and to initiate condom use in their relationships,” said Diane Quest, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. “Our research found that many women feel embarrassed purchasing condoms.”
A University of Connecticut study found that women are more likely to buy condoms if they are placed near “neutral” store items like shampoo.
Of course, many women now buy condoms discreetly online, and many women are not embarrassed at all.
“I’m not embarrassed about buying them,” said Brittany Osman, a junior at New York University who recalled that the last time she did buy them, the guy she was with was more embarrassed than she was. “But pretty much everybody else is uncomfortable. I think they feel like the clerk is going to judge them.”
In contrast to the national statistics, Trojan has experienced an increase in female consumers with 40 percent of women now purchasing their condoms, Johnson said. Trojan began targeting women in 2005—first, with its Elexa brand and now with the “Her Pleasure” line.
This national stigma surrounding condoms may be linked to abstinence education, many comprehensive sexual education advocates say.
“What’s really horrifying is that a lot of current sexual education programs go out of their way to tell young people condoms don’t work,” said Martha Kempner, vice president for information and communications for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “The idea is that condoms somehow give kids license to have sex.”
Teenagers who are educated about sex are not more likely to have sex, reported a 2003 George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services study.
“Condoms were just part of our education,” said Liz Rizzo, 36, a Los Angeles-based sex and relationships contributing editor for BlogHer.com who grew up in South Florida and feels fortunate to have seen a condom put on a banana in health class. “When I was in college, we always had condoms in our purses—maybe not for yourself—maybe your friend needed one.”
Rizzo added that shows like “Sex in the City” play a powerful role in acknowledging that there’s “nothing dirty about condoms.”
Bronwyn James, a junior at NYU who is not yet sexually active, said that once she needs condoms, she will have no problem buying them herself.
“I think the idea is kind of silly,” James said, laughing incredulously at the “Proper Attire” condoms box. “The whole concept—I feel like they’re kind of dorky. I can’t think of anyone who would buy these.”
Osman had a different take.
“I think there would definitely be people who would go for this,” she said. “They’re silly. But people are silly about buying condoms.”