OK, so we're not quite there yet. But changes are afoot that could transform the condom from a grudgingly accepted contraceptive to a sex toy in its own right.
For a device that goes back a few thousand years, condoms are pretty resistant to change. After evolving from tortoise shell and gourds to sheep intestine, latex and polyurethane, the concept is still the same: create a barrier that blocks sperm and sexually transmitted diseases.
So after all of these years, why are they such a pain to use?
"I wish I didn't have to use them, but it's necessary," said Frank, a recording engineer from Rochester, N.Y. "Like my dad always said, it's like wearing a raincoat in the shower — the sensation is definitely not as good."
Dennis Paradise's family has been in the condom business for more than 50 years. What has he learned?
"The consumer wants two things — security and sensitivity," said Paradise, president of condom wholesaler Paradise Marketing Services.
But it's a seemingly intractable trade-off. The thinner a condom, the less it interferes with sensation; but the thicker it is, the less likely it is to rupture.
Bridging the Gap
Then came the condom renaissance in the early '90s, courtesy of Indian surgeon Dr. Alla Venkata Krishna Reddy. He looked at condoms not as protection but as a pleasure device. Reddy's first creation was the Pleasure Plus, a condom with a large, bulging pouch that rested under the head of the penis. It may look like a tumor, but it's designed to feel good.
"It's looser fitting where most of the nerve endings in the penis are located," said Adam Glickman, CEO and founder of the online prophylactic boutique Condomania. "Tighter fitting condoms deaden nerves; free-flowing latex washes over the skin."
In other words, a little extra latex can go a long way. Instead of decreasing pleasurable sensations like most condoms, the Pleasure Plus brings more pleasure to the bedroom — and not just for guys.
"The looseness of the latex also stimulates the clitoris," said Reddy in a phone interview from London.
The revolutionary rubber was a big seller at Condomania stores. But shortly after it hit the shelves, Reddy's company went out of business — the Food and Drug Administration ordered a recall when it found some of the Pleasure Plus condoms leaked. So the prophylactic designer went back to the drawing board.
His next creation is possibly the most outrageous looking condom ever. The Pleasure Plus has a small bulge, but the Inspiral has been sculpted like a soft-serve ice cream cone. The Inspiral is touted for its "spring action," but the basic concept is the same as the Pleasure Plus: creatively sculpted latex provides more friction on the penis.
Imagine a corkscrew condom, or one designed by Frank Getty, and you'll begin to understand.
"The condom has to be extremely pleasurable," said Reddy, who arrived at condom design after working in HIV prevention and population control. "Then people will use them consistently."
In Other News
Aside from Reddy's eye-catching innovations, there are other developments in condom science worth mentioning. One of the most basic — especially for anyone who's seen the Seinfeld where George struggles to open his condom wrapper in time — is the arrival of foil packets and other easy-to-open packages. And then there's the fun stuff.
"Within the next six months the first Food and Drug Administration-approved glow-in-the-dark condom will be on the market," Glickman said. "It uses a non-toxic phosphorus." Longer-lasting flavored condoms are also on the way.
Manufacturers are engaged in a latex arms-race of sorts, striving to build ever-thinner condoms. Japanese brands like Kimono, Crown and Excalibur were the first to introduce ultrathins, and major brands like Durex, Lifestyle and Trojan have followed suit.
Paradise has introduced his own brand of condoms which includes the "super-sensitive," a mere 0.05 mm thick, down from the standard 0.07 mm.
"I've had some people say they had to stop because they didn't think it was still on," he said.
Additional advances include condoms with Astroglide lubricant, which was shown in a recent study to kill HIV, and condoms made out of heat-conducting polyurethane.
The jury's still out on PU condoms — some users complain of a noisy, Hefty-bag like experience, and they're more expensive — but they are a definite winner for the 1 percent of the population allergic to latex.
One common feature you're not likely to see much longer is the spermicide/microbicide nonoxynol-9. It was touted as an HIV killer, but recent studies show it breaks down human tissue, making it easier for the AIDS virus to attack the body. Not that anybody liked it much anyway.
"Nonoxynol-9 is much more of a sham than anything else," said Paradise. "We don't suggest it or recommend it for any reason — it's very highly irritating, it smells and tastes terrible, and we have evidence that leads us to believe that [nonoxynol-9] over time degrades the latex."
The Future of Condoms
All of these incremental changes are well and good, but are they likely to change condoms' status as the contraceptive everyone loves to hate? Some in the condom biz suggest changing such attitudes has as much to do with education as invention.
"I don't see any changes in the industry that's going to change the attitude of the consumer," Paradise said. "Part of it is that even in this new century, network television won't accept a condom ad, Time and Newsweek still won't accept condom ads."
And Glickman, at least, has hopes that the industry's renaissance will achieve new heights of body-condom integration.
"In the next 10 years, we may see condoms that warm up or cool down," he said. "They may vibrate, or absorb vibration, or reverberate vibrations ... maybe emit sound waves. The idea is to make condoms a natural part of our body and anatomy — something [that] transcends protection."
If anybody can make the perfect condom, it's likely Reddy — and he's still working at it.
"I don't know whether I have designed the ultimate condom or not," the jimmy hat genius said. "But hopefully, I'll have it right before I die."