Which condom is best?
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.
Price was not a major consideration, since none of the condoms we tested were exceedingly expensive—they all averaged about $12 for a pack of 12. (Lambskin condoms cost considerably more, but we did not test them, as they're porous and don't necessarily prevent disease transmission.) We graded on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best. Here are the candidates from worst to best.
Trojan Shared Pleasure Warm Sensations
Price: 12-pack $7 to $12 (Prices vary widely, depending on the pharmacy, supermarket, or Internet site where you buy them.)
"Pleasure" is Trojan's marketing buzzword. The Warm Sensations condom is coated with a special gel that is supposed to heat up with intercourse. There are any number of drawbacks to protected sex, but I've never found low temperature to be one of them. We couldn't fathom the point of this condom, and, indeed, the special heating gel did not add to the experience. As for lubrication, the moistening agent on this Trojan (as with many other Trojans) took on a dry, powdery feel. And the rubbery smell that seems to grow more distinct with use doesn't exactly keep you in the mood.
Lubrication/ease of application: 2
Trojan Her Pleasure
Price: 12-pack $8 to $13
Her Pleasure offers a "unique texturing designed to help provide extra sensation for a woman's most sensitive area." Translation: This condom has weird cross-hatchings at its base. Her Pleasure provided none of the fun that Pleasure Mesh did. My partner, meanwhile, said it was probably best "for awkward angles." (I did not pursue the point.) In addition to the pungent rubber smell and too-tight fit, the lubrication was insufficient.
Sagami Type E
Price: 12-pack $7 to $15
For some reason, the people at Sagami Rubber Industries in Tokyo made the Type E an eerie shade of green. Unless you're into weird Asian porn, or like to pretend a lizard lives in your shorts, you may find the look of this condom disconcerting. The Sagami Type E offers several layers of stimulation—an inch of small nobs, then an inch of mesh, then several more inches of nobs. In practice, the Sagami was fine, and the bells and whistles added to our experience, but we couldn't get over the ridiculous appearance.
Feeling: 2 to 5 (5 if you like the kinky stuff, 2 if you don't)
Total: 6 to 9
Trojan Pleasure Mesh
Price: 12-pack $8 to $13
This condom is a streamlined improvement on the standard ribbed condom. Ribs, which are made by stretching and folding the latex of the condom, tend to flatten out after a few minutes. They have always been more about novelty than function. But the latex of the Pleasure Mesh is striated, like a storm-fence laid over a flat wall. My partner's reaction, if not as enthusiastic as my own, was favorable. She reported increased stimulation, but added that "without good technique, [the mesh] won't make much difference." Lubrication was adequate.
Aesthetics: 3 (Just don't stare at it.)
Price: 12-pack $10 to $16
The Kimono had a creamy, even luxurious, feel. ("Velvety," was my partner's word.) Presentation matters, of course, and we liked the well-packaged Kimono immediately. The box, matte-finished cherry red and adorned with lotus leaves, looks Zenlike and lovely on the bedside table. The individual foil packages inside come in easy-to-tear pairs (in contrast to Trojan's annoying, waxy, sausage-string approach). The Kimono went on easily with virtually no latex scent. Alas, nothing's perfect—the lubrication did wear off slightly.
Trojan Extended Pleasure
Price: 12-pack $12.99
According to the box, Trojan's new Extended Pleasure contains "a special lubricant that helps control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking." (This "special lubricant" is benzocaine, a common anesthetic.) A little glob of gel sits, rather conspicuously, at the tip of the condom. While a little scary-looking, this numbing agent is a good idea. Short of getting a pre-coitus shot from your dentist, Extended Pleasure probably offers the most effective short-term solution for early ejaculation, a common problem. The sex does indeed last longer. But I advise washing your hands after application, though, as the desensitizing lubricant spreads. (Two words: numb lips.) The extra lubricant also helped with Trojan's dryness problem.
Price: 12-pack $12 to $18
The Pleasure Plus condom is not related to Trojan's Pleasure line. Its maker is the Global Protection Corporation of Boston (no connection to the Pentagon or Rand, as far as we could find). The company has managed to get gushing advertorials placed in magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and GQ. At the Hustler Store on the Sunset Strip here in Los Angeles the salespeople are agog over Pleasure Plus. The buzz, it must be said, seems justified, at least where the woman is concerned. I thought it was just slightly above average, but my partner insisted the Pleasure Plus was the best condom she'd ever used. To the touch, it felt to be only barely lubricated, she pointed out, but the moisture was more than adequate and long-lasting. It was also odorless. My partner was so enthusiastic about it that at a certain point I became jealous of the condom. Her final assessment: "It doesn't feel like there's anything on." (And she wasn't being paid by Global Protection.)
12 pack $9 to $12
The Trojan Supra is billed as "ultra-thin" ("ultra" being Trojan's second favorite word, after "pleasure") and for once the superlative is apt. This condom, made not of latex but of microsheer polyurethane, was my favorite. Its airy feel—like a diaphanous tunic—transported me to an earlier, unjaded time, when sex was new and condoms were fun. What's more, it had an almost sweet odor to it. My partner said it was agreeable enough (she was still dreaming about the Pleasure Plus, I think). One major drawback: The Supra is only made with Nonoxynol-9.
You can read James Verini's other work at www.jamesverini.com.
Photograph of condom in wrapper on the Slate home page from Royalty-Free/Corbis.