Under Wraps

In search of the perfect condom.

gold-wrappered condom. Source: Shutterstock.com

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gold-wrappered condom. Source: Shutterstock.com
Source: Shutterstock.com

It would require a rather grotesque stretch of the imagination to picture Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as some sort of closet hedonist. But last year his lavishly endowed philanthropic foundation announced a competition to develop a “next generation condom.” In so doing, the well-meaning billionaire and his associates stipulated that these new-tech condoms would need to, among other things, “enhance,” well, you know, “pleasure.”

Eventually, 812 competitors rose to the challenge. Eleven eventually made it to the next stage, where they are now presumably hard at work fine-tuning and fabricating what many of us thought had sufficiently evolved decades ago. Among the finalists–each of whom received $100,000 from Gates’ organization–we have male condoms that conduct their own heat, that are self-tightening, and that are made from cow tendons. So thank you, but we’ll pass.

For the immediate future, the condom seems a safe bet to remain essentially unchanged, and thank goodness for that. Plunk down anywhere from a buck to a fiver for a fresh sheath, in whatever vibrant hue or style that strokes your ego, and you’ve got yourself a bargain: The modern condom both protects and, increasingly, entertains. What a deal.

It wasn’t so long ago, though, that it demanded the sleuthing skills of a CIA spy just to obtain a three-pack at a neighborhood apothecary. That’s how well hidden they were by pharmacists, the then self-appointed guardians of our national virtue. Not anymore. I recently spotted an assortment of condoms at my local Walgreens that were displayed adjacent to a stack of chocolate treats. Whoppers, to be specific. Obviously, the store manager has a sense of humor.

While times have changed and condoms practically rain down from the heavens these days, in a sense they still reside in a shadowy corner of the American psyche. Think about it. No other item in the vast galaxy of consumer products elicits such snickers yet remains so shrouded in mystery. How are they made? (The latex ones, almost exactly like balloons.) Where? (In the U.S., mostly in the South.) How do we know their quality has been tested? (Faith!–plus the Food and Drug Administration.) And what are they really–a key to family planning, a disease preventive, a personal amusement? (Yes.)

OK, we are having a bit of fun at the expense of the li’l (or, if you insist, magnum) condom. There’s barely any wisecracking, however, within the industry itself, which, worldwide, consists of a dozen or so paranoid, hyper-competitive manufacturers. “The companies are all so terribly private,” laments Aine Collier, author of The Humble Little Condom, an authoritative history that, unfortunately, failed to break the group’s code of silence.

I likewise failed to penetrate that defense when I reached out to the head of marketing at Trojan, the brand that controls roughly 70 percent of the American market. Would he respond to several straightforward questions? Such as: Do sales rise and fall with the state of the economy? Does the company have any say as to how its products are showcased in stores? His PR rep went silent over an extended weekend before announcing that there would be no answers. None. The implicit message: You don’t go poking ’round here.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. The U.S. condom market has slightly deflated over the last year. What’s more, foreign competitors are aggressively aiming at American consumers. Condoms may be a broadly accepted fact of life–cultural demographics, and thus destiny itself, hinge on their use–but their sales patterns remain a closely guarded secret.

As for Bill Gates’ effort to build a better trap, at least one skeptic believes it was badly conceived from the start. Speaking to me from her home in the United Kingdom, Aine Collier, the condom historian, says, “The bazillionaire American businessman is so naive. His foundation should have done more research first.” Why is that? “Because it’s not the technology anymore. We’ve got good products. What really needs to change,” Collier says, “are people’s mind-boggling superstitions and attitudes about sex.”

Well, yes. No doubt. And if any of Gates’ prize applicants somehow manage to develop a condom that eradicates human ignorance, there will be no cash award fat enough to express society’s appreciation.

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