The Microsoft co-founder and one of the world’s richest men offered inventors $100,000 in start-up grants to develop a ‘next-generation’ of super-sheath condoms through the charitable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Innovators and public health advocates are hinging their hopes on a new vaginal design to stop the spread of STIs
Despite the fact that (consensual) sex pretty much always feels good, many people around the world still refuse to use condoms, citing concern for diminished physical pleasure (aka “it just doesn’t feel the same” logic). There are multiple obvious and likely results of unprotected sexual intercourse such as unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission, both of which pose massive public health concerns that, um, shouldn’t really be concerns given the relatively wide availability of condoms.
But, alas, social stigmas are difficult to overcome, which is why Bill and Melinda Gates have stepped in to try to innovate a way around disparaged condom use. Last month, the billionaire couple’s philanthropic foundation doled out $1.1 million in grant money to nearly a dozen contraceptive projects that aim to curb sex-related public health concerns around the world. Three of the projects focus primarily on women, who are disproportionately affected by HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in developing countries.
Two projects specifically set out to redesign the female condom, a contraceptive tool with a bad reputation — but which, with some thoughtful tweaking, could be the key to protecting women around the world. “We hope that women can feel empowered,” Debby Herbenick, a sexual health scientist who is developing one of the designs, told Bloomberg News. “Female condoms give women a choice to say: ‘Okay, if you don’t want to wear one, I will.’”
According to Herbenick, female condoms have yet to take off because most designs “just aren’t built for women’s bodies” and fit like a “sandwich bag.” But her design, co-developed with researcher Frank Sadlo, will be similar to male latex condoms, but instead of gripping the penis, it will be sized and shaped to fit inside the vagina. Herbenick said the condom should increase pleasure for both partners, while at the same time allowing women to take contraceptive decisions into their own hands. Public health experts contend that a key reason for the disproportionate spread of STIs among women is that the decision to wear a condom is often entirely up to men, who can’t always be depended on — or told — to wear them.
That’s why the other female condom in development, designed by gynecologist Mache Seibel, incorporates features that will allow women to insert it hours before intercourse, to avoid any unwanted in-the-moment negotiation and keep control in the female’s hands. Seibel’s prototype has already been tested with favorable results; the final product will be air-infused so it stays fresh and in place as long as necessary, and, like Herbenick’s, will also provide increased pleasure.
Other projects include a non-gender-specific insertable silicone condom that can be used for vaginal and anal use, as well as nanotextured male condoms and durable gel versions. All of the projects offer exciting prospects for global health gains, if they’ll only catch on. If they do, it’ll feel really good for everyone.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said Thursday progress is being made on developing a “next-generation” ultra-thin, skin-like condom that could offer better sexual pleasure, help population control and be financed by first-world investors.
Last year, the Microsoft co-founder and one of the world’s richest men offered inventors $100,000 in start-up grants to develop a “next-generation” of super-sheath condoms through the charitable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It looks like “there are some technological materials that will be able to maintain a (condom) barrier with a very thin, thin material”, Gates said in New Delhi.
Gates, who was speaking at a question-and-answer session with his wife Melinda, said the foundation received a lot of proposals from inventors to its “Grand Challenges” program aimed at improving lives of the poorest.
The Seattle-based foundation has given one grant of $100,000 to the University of Manchester to research a condom using a super-light conducive material known as graphene.
Another $100,000 grant has gone to the University of Oregon for a proposal to create a polyurethane condom that would create a seal around the penis and be less than half the thickness of the best condoms available now.
Scientists say they want to achieve a super-strength thin membrane for a condom to achieve what they call a “barely-there” feel. Men often say they are reluctant to use condoms because they decrease sexual pleasure.
The aim would be to encourage more couples to use condoms, preventing pregnancy and helping avert the spread of sexually transmitted illnesses such as HIV.
The foundation has said it could provide further funding of up to $1 million to develop a condom that would “enhance the pleasure so as to increase uptake”.
Gates said first-world investors have little interest in developing medicines to combat such illnesses as malaria and tuberculosis as they are not prevalent in wealthy countries.
However, “there could be a market for this (thin condom) among well-off nations, which doesn’t happen with a lot of innovations,” he said.
‘Put family planning in hands of women’
Gates’ wife, Melinda, told the same forum the foundation was also investing in developing a lozenge-like contraceptive tablet that would be placed in the vagina, and which “could put family planning in the hands of women”.
Gates, who this month announced a $50-million investment to fight West Africa’s devastating Ebola outbreak, said he was “very optimistic, very impatient” about achieving the goals of the foundation the couple founded in 2000.
The tech guru said he was encouraged by promises by India’s new right-wing government, to reduce high child and maternal mortality and improve sanitation.
Premier Narendra Modi has said by 2022, no Indian should be without a toilet or clean water.
India accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population with no toilets, according to the World Health Organisation, creating sanitation problems that cause early deaths, hike health-care costs and lower productivity as people fall sick from disease.
“Great goals have been set,” but the government faces tough choices to meet its social commitments while balancing stretched public finances, Gates said.
*Jenny Kutner is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sex, gender and feminism. Follow @jennykutner or email firstname.lastname@example.org.