A big lie that HIV prevention workers like myself spread is: "Condoms are FUN!!"
If that were true, reported condom use among men who have sex with men would be much higher than currently found, even in places were condoms are readily available and free. If that were true, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men would not have reached over 30% in Bangkok and Yangon, and more than 5% in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai and countless other cities in Asia.
Condoms are NOT fun. I am sorry. If we could only just SAY it. Then first-time users, believing they are in for a wonderful experience trying out 'fun' condoms for the first time, may not think that there is something terribly wrong with them when they discover that it feels different. Less 'warm'. Less 'wet'. Less 'close'. That is if you actually manage to retain your erection while fumbling with the packaging. Condoms are usually packaged in three layers - first a plastic folia, then a box, and then an aluminium cover, all of which have to be opened, often in the heat of the moment and / or in the dark. When it is finally out, then you have to put it on your penis, with the right side up. Add a drop of icy-cold lubricant. Bummer. Is your erection holding up? All the time, your sex session is put on hold...
So why bother using condoms? Well, that is easy. If used consistently, condoms have been found to dramatically reduce our risk for HIV infection, as well as for other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia and different strains of herpes. Hence, there is a strong case to be made for promoting them. It has been estimated that if 60-80% of sex acts among men who have sex with men were covered by condoms, the HIV epidemic would slowly die out.
Hence, we could say condoms are like an unliked friend... We need them, but we don't really like them at our party. They protect us, so we SHOULD like them. But still. A bit like my emotions towards my mathematics teacher, or my dentist. I know, they are important. I need them. But still.
Condoms alone won't do the trick. One of the great injustices of life is that the human body does not produce penetration-facilitating lubricating fluids in the rectum, as it does in vaginas. Some homophobes use this biological fact to claim that anal sex is against the 'Order of Nature' - but that is a different debate. What it means is that we, men, lovers of anal sex, butt-fuckers, need to apply additional lubrication when performing our (very natural) anal duties.
Many condoms come in sachets that already keep them lubricated, to an extent. But usually it is necessary to apply more, in the form of water-based lubricant. Why not just use Vaseline, Nivea, shampoo, sun-blocking cream or any other readily available cream? The answer, again, is simple. These substances contain chemicals that react with the latex of our unliked friends, the condoms. These chemicals cause them disintegrate / break. I once observed during an HIV prevention session with male sex workers in Pattaya how one of them was asked to blow up a condom, as a balloon. Then another one was asked to apply some Vaseline to the condom. It immediately exploded! It was quite shocking.
So no oil-based lubricants with your condom, unless you use polyurethane condoms, which are made of plastic, hence the oil-based lubricants do not affect them. Unfortunately polyurethane condoms are not widely available, I never understand why, because people who have used them say they are amazing. Polyurethane can be considered better than latex in several ways: it conducts heat better than latex (so it feels like you are not wearing it), it is not as sensitive to temperature and ultraviolet light (and so has less rigid storage requirements and a longer shelf life). Polyurethane is also less allergenic than latex, and does not have an odour.
By the way, you can also use oil-based lubricants with female condoms, which are also made of polyurethane. The use of female condoms for anal sex will be discussed in a next column, perhaps.
Water-based lubricants are produced by Durex and KY and other manufacturers. Sometimes lubricants are handed out in sachets in gay entertainment places or by HIV prevention workers, for free. That is great, because lubricants tend to be a bit pricey. One of these lubricants (KY) is also used by surgeons to lubricate their rubber gloves during surgery - so if you are shy about buying it, just stand in front of the cashier and say: "Damn, I got six heart transplants scheduled for tonight! Hope this one tube will be enough."
This trick will NOT work with the Durex 'Play' lubricants, though! These are specifically designed to enhance sexual pleasure, and should be applied on the tip of the penis before wearing the condom, and then on the condom itself. Some of them have a tinkling or 'warming' effect, which can be quite amazing. A friend told me that when he tried the warming lubricant for the first time, he had to check several times to see if the condom was still on; he was worried that it had slipped off, because he did not feel it anymore. But it was still there. Highly recommended.
Saliva (spit) is by far the cheapest lubricant, because it is produced in our own mouths, to facilitate anal penetration (according to the Order of Nature, perhaps?). But you need a lot of it, and it can be unhygienic if you are in the middle of a sex session, but start to feel friction, so that you have to pull out to apply spit on your condom-covered penis with your hand. If you do it more often than just at the start, if your fingers touch your mouth you may ingest bacteria that can give you diarrhea or something else caused by intestinal bugs. Well. Perhaps a small price to play - but check out those lubricants at the pharmacy, if you have a chance - much easier, cleaner and much more fun.
One thing surprisingly few people seem to know is that condoms come in different sizes, different shapes AND in different 'smoothness patterns'.
First, the sizes. These sizes are measured in millimeters across, not in the length of the condom - which is the same for all. The smallest size is 49 millimeters, and the biggest are 56-58 millimeters (i.e. the Durex Comfort brand); bigger sizes also exist but are hard to find. Most commonly, condoms are distributed in 50, 51 or 52 mm; there are also condoms that are 51.5 mm and 52.5 mm. It sounds like a tiny, insignificant difference, but because we are talking about an elastic material like latex (which can be stretched to 8 times it original size!), a millimeter makes at least as much of a difference as an inch does for a penis. Speaking of which, have you ever noticed how most gay men use the metric system, i.e. kilometers, meters, centimeters and millimeters, but all of them know INCHES too - measuring that 'special distance'...
Now the shapes. Condoms can be wide at the base and smaller at the tip; can be wider at the top and tighter at the base, and they can be the same width at the top as at the base. The shape of the condom is often depicted as a small diagram on the condom box. Like the size, the shape also makes a big difference in how the condom 'feels' when you wear it. Sometimes condoms can fit so well that you hardly notice that you wear one. Sometimes they can fit so poorly that you lose interest and your erection. Much unsafe sex occurs in these circumstances - if you can't keep it hard with a condom.
Then there is the surface of the condom. Usually this is smooth. But there are also condoms that have patterns in the latex, causing more friction while penetrating, supposedly increasing the pleasure of the partner. I think it probably does not work for anal sex - please correct me if I am wrong.
Now, listen to this. It is extremely important that you find out which condom size, pattern and surface, and which type of lubricant suits you best! Because having a condom that is too small or has the wrong size may reduce your sexual pleasure unnecessarily, and you may be so pissed off by the experience that you decide to ditch condoms altogether. Having a condom that is too big can lead to frequent slippage and puts you and your partner at unnecessary risk for HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Lubricants, as I mentioned below, can greatly decrease the displeasure of having to use condoms.
Just as we do not all wear and use exactly the same size, form and pattern of shoes, to use a very gay example, condoms and lubricants also need to be objects of careful 'shopping around'. They need to be studied, tried out and compared. You have to discover which size you are. Maybe Fridae can make 'preferred type and size of condom' a part of their member profile questions?
I have not yet tried to ask the sales person at the pharmacy: "Do you have a fitting room where I can try these different condom sizes?" - but that is exactly what you should do. Just buy 5-6 different types and sizes of condoms, and 2-3 different types of lubricants. Then have a condom-fitting party at home - perhaps with some friends?
Perhaps we can instigate a new trend - the 'Rubberware Parties' - so we can spread the word:
When it comes to condoms and lubricants, one size does NOT fill all.