Why Bill Gates Wants A Condom That Actually Feels Good

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It's rare to see the words "Bill Gates" "condom" and "enhance pleasure" in the same sentence but that's precisely the gist of the latest global health challenge by the tech billionaire's charitable foundation.

Indeed, the Gates Foundation's latest public health quest is truly inspired: $100,000 to anyone who can invent the "next generation condom," one that actually feels groovy and might even "enhance pleasure." Here are the specifics, from the Foundation's web site:

Condoms have been in use for about 400 years yet they have undergone very little technological improvement in the past 50 years. The primary improvement has been the use of latex as the primary material and quality control measures which allow for quality testing of each individual condom. Material science and our understanding of neurobiology has undergone revolutionary transformation in the last decade yet that knowledge has not been applied to improve the product attributes of one of the most ubiquitous and potentially underutilized products on earth. New concept designs with new materials can be prototyped and tested quickly. Large-scale human clinical trials are not required. Manufacturing capacity, marketing, and distribution channels are already in place.

We are looking for a Next Generation Condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use.

Additional concepts that might increase uptake include attributes that increase ease-of-use for male and female condoms, for example better packaging or designs that are easier to properly apply. In addition, attributes that address and overcome cultural barriers are also desired. Proposals must (i) have a testable hypothesis, (ii) include an associated plan for how the idea would be tested or validated, and (iii) yield interpretable and unambiguous data in Phase I, in order to be considered for Phase II funding.

A few examples of work that would be considered for funding:

Application of safe new materials that may preserve or enhance sensation;
Development and testing of new condom shapes/designs that may provide an improved user experience;
Application of knowledge from other fields (e.g. neurobiology, vascular biology) to new strategies for improving condom desirability.

Slate takes to task the few critics mocking Gates' latest initiative in post that makes the excellent point that we might all benefit from a technologically improved condom:

Some critics have ribbed Gates for pledging money to alleviate this male woe. Gawker called the initiative a boon for “creeps” and “pervs” who forgo condoms because “they just don't feel good, amirite? You know what I'm talking about, fellas. [Exaggerated wink.]” Concluded Popular Science, “Men are idiots.” Commenters piled on: “I'm really bored with the whole, ‘condoms reduce sensitivity!’ whining. If you can orgasm while wearing a condom, it can't be THAT bad.”

Seriously? Bill Gates wants to devote a tiny fraction of his considerable fortune toward making condoms feel amazing, and some people are like, “Meh! Sex isn’t THAT bad. Suck it up, dudes!” Of course condom discomfort isn’t an excuse for anyone to pressure a partner into unsafe sex. But pervy creeps are not the only ones who will benefit from a better condom. For, uh, some women, today’s options can be physically irritating, drying, weird smelling, and gross tasting. Some of us just prefer to have sex with partners who rate the experience better than “not that bad.” Many of us accept condoms (or safe alternatives to intercourse) over the risk of unplanned pregnancy and STIs, but we don’t have to like it—and that's a problem that's worth solving.

Underlining all of this razzing of Gates’ initiative are some pretty backward messages: Safe sex shouldn’t feel good; avoiding consequences like pregnancy and STIs ought to require personal sacrifice; men should be happy to just be having sex, regardless of the circumstances. These beliefs reinforce the idea that sex is inherently either dangerous or unpleasant. We now have the opportunity to leverage technology to cut through some of that moralizing around safe sex. Gates’ money—and the social stamp of his approval—is crucial to that effort: Given the stigma that surrounds it, it can be difficult to attract outside innovators to the sex industry. As the call for entries notes, “Condoms have been in use for about 400 years yet they have undergone very little technological improvement in the past 50 years.” They're not that bad, but they could always get better.

For more on the condom conundrum, read David Holzman's excellent personal account here: "Single Guy's Lament, What Became of the Female Condom?"

This program aired on March 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.