In order to promote better sexual health around the globe, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants someone to create the next generation of safe — yet pleasure-enhancing — condoms. And the foundation is putting its money where its mouth is with its ongoing Grand Challenges Explorations grant competition. Successful applicants could win a $100,000 initial grant, as well as up to $1 million in continued funding, to put their new condom design into production.
The challenge was issued in light of the reality that, while condoms have been in use for the past four centuries, “they have undergone very little technological improvement in the past 50 years.” On its website, the global health advocacy organization specifies that stymied sexual pleasure is a significant factor contributing to inconsistent condom use, and condoms that heighten pleasure might help reverse the trend in at-risk communities:
The one major drawback to more universal use of male condoms is the lack of perceived incentive for consistent use. The primary drawback from the male perspective is that condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable, particularly given that the decisions about use must be made just prior to intercourse. Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure? If so, would such a product lead to substantial benefits for global health, both in terms of reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancies and in prevention of infection with HIV or other STIs?
Likewise, female condoms can be an effective method for prevention of unplanned pregnancy or HIV infection, but suffer from some of the same liabilities as male condoms, require proper insertion training and are substantially more expensive than their male counterparts. While negotiating use of female condoms may be easier than male condoms, this need for negotiation precisely illustrates the barrier preventing greater use that we seek to address through this call. [...]
We are looking for a Next Generation Condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use. Additional concepts that might increase uptake include attributes that increase ease-of-use for male and female condoms, for example better packaging or designs that are easier to properly apply. In addition, attributes that address and overcome cultural barriers are also desired.
While the idea that men don’t use condoms as a consequence of curtailed pleasure and satisfaction may induce some serious eye-rolling, study data on the subject shows that it is no laughing matter — particularly for low-income regions with medically vulnerable populations. In one qualitative study on inconsistent condom use among HIV-positive populations in India, interview participants cited a lack of “full satisfaction” and the desire for “greater sexual intimacy in the heat of the moment” as a major barrier to safe sex practices. And here in the U.S., another study of American men who have sex with men (MSM) — who are generally at much higher risk for HIV and syphilis transmission — found the trend to be even more pronounced, with the vast majority of respondents tying non-use of condoms to sensation and pleasure-related reasons.