In March, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would pony up $100,000 in grant money to the inventor of a condom that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure” for the wearer (and his partners). This week, the foundation named 11 grant recipients (out of 800 total entries), and unveiled their prototypes for improved sheaths to the world. At the New Republic, Andy Isaacson gives us a taste of what $1.1 million in condom money can yield:
An “ultra-thin condom of a polyurethane polymer” that’s “half as thin” and “twice as strong” as the run-of-the-mill latex version, and contracts when heated to mold the condom to each user’s individual equipment.
A condom constructed in “soft and rubbery” thermoplastic elastomer, which “can flex for a longer period than latex without breaking,” then bounce back to its “initial dimensions.”
A sheath made from “collagen fibrils from cow tendons” to simulate the sensation of skin-on-skin contact (between humans). Said grant recipient Mark McGlothlin, “the texture of collagen is very much like the mucous membrane: The feel of it, the heat transfer of it, and to the touch, it feels very much like skin.”
A polyethylene condom—the same “transparent, odorless, hypoallergenic, sheer plastic used in the gloves worn by food handlers”—that “clings rather than squeezes.” Instead of rolling on like the standard rubber, this version is “pulled over the penis like a sock.”
The “Rapidom” condom, which comes with a built-in system for lightening-quick application. Here’s how it works: “A foil condom wrapper, perforated down the middle, is held over the penis and pulled apart using both hands. Still attached to the condom, a plastic applicator inside the wrapper then guides the condom down until it is fully applied. With a final tug, the applicator and the wrapper come off, leaving the condom in place—all one motion, with only minimal disruption to the moment.” The tear and tug technique will alleviate the mental stress that accompanies condom application, the inventor says: “People don’t want to think—the sequence should flow logically and naturally.”
Great job all around, folks. I’d buy each and every one of these little guys. But then again, I already buy condoms—the point of the grant program isn’t just to make condoms feel better, but to feel so good that they can convince non-users to start strapping them on. This is an imperfect strategy, because while cow collagen may feel more like a mucous membrane, when it comes to providing that human skin sensation, I’m betting the real deal still does it better. We wear condoms to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs, not because they feel better than the alternative. I'm glad the Gateses are distributing some of their wealth toward innovating thinner, skin-ier, faster solutions for those problems—but if we're ever going to convince people that condoms “feel” better, it will be because they just feel a lot safer than condomless sex.