When the list of the world's great inventions is tallied, the wheel, the combustion engine, and the computer chip invariably make the list. The condom, amazingly, never does. This seems an injustice. The condom has been around in some form at least since the Roman times, probably longer, and to this day remains the most popular prophylactic in most parts of the world. It is a marvel of human ingenuity, really: cheap, easy to use, and remarkably effective.
Condoms are thought to have originally been made from animal intestines or fish bladders, with some colorful local variations: oiled rice paper in the East, condomlike sheaths made form tortoise shell—yes, tortoise shell—in the South Pacific. Casanova is said to have preferred linen. In the 1840s, Charles Goodyear perfected the vulcanization of rubber, which became the material of choice for over a century and provided the condom with its most enduring nickname (other popular sobriquets include jimmy hat, love glove, and raincoat). In the last 30 years, most condom-makers have switched from rubber to latex, and some have introduced novelty condoms: ribbing, fruit flavors, neon glow-in-the-dark paint. These have been more interesting in theory than in practice.
In the past year, however, the condom industry has undergone a quiet revolution. If you've recently rushed out of the house in a long coat at 2 a.m., you've likely noticed a dizzying array of male-prophylactic choices. There are mesh-patterned condoms and climax-delaying condoms and contoured, studded condoms. The people at Trojan seem to be leading the charge with innovation and flashy design. Some of these newfangled offerings are useful, some not so useful, some just scary. I decided to conduct a test to find the best among them.
I live in Los Angeles, arguably the best city in the world to conduct this sort of research. In addition to any number of 24-hour drug stores the size of university gymnasiums, L.A. has specialty shops catering to every conceivable sexual predilection. However, I limited the test sample to condoms that are 1) readily available at Rite Aid or Walgreens, etc.; or, 2) available on any number of Internet retail sites.
I tested condoms that seemed to be the most advanced and innovative. For instance, I tried the Trojan Warm Sensations condom, but I did not try Twisted Pleasure, a variation on the more common ribbed condom. With one exception, I chose condoms without the spermicide Nonoxynol-9, which recent studies have suggested may increase the risk of HIV and other STDs.
My partner and I graded in three categories.
1) Feeling, by which I mean proximity to the real thing. How much did it feel like there was no condom at all?
2) Lubrication and ease of application. How well-lubricated was the condom? Did it stay lubricated? (To keep the playing field level, we used no outside lubricants.) Did it go on easily? Was it ill-fitting? For the most part, we stuck with normal-sized condoms. (Among the crop of larger-sized models, the standout is the Trojan Magnum. And for those men really eager to impress there is the Trojan Magnum XL, the Hummer of condoms.)
3) Aesthetics. Some condoms have only a slight latex scent, others smell as though you're making out in a tire factory. And while most condoms look alike, a few unfortunate specimens made us wonder whether their designers had some kind of plumbing work in mind.