Finally! The makeover of the condom, the addition of pleasure.
“IF I didn’t already know what they were, I would have difficulty identifying the objects in front of me. There are about 20, mounted on a rack of vertical wooden pegs and illuminated into ghostly shadows by a light box beneath. They resemble elaborate sculptures in translucent resin. One looks like a thin, hollow lemon juicer; others are like accordions or abstract spaceships.
Designers Danny Resnic and Ray Chavez joke that they used to keep these racks in the window since passers-by had no chance of guessing what they were. And it’s true; they share only the most rudimentary qualities with what most people think of when they think of a condom.
Despite being available in various colours, flavours and textures, modern condoms all follow a basic design that has been with us for more than 150 years: a rubber tube with one end sealed up. But perhaps not for much longer.
The first reference to condoms in the medical literature was by Gabriele Falloppio, a 16th-century Italian anatomist who is best known for describing the fallopian tube. In a posthumously published article in 1564 he claimed to have invented a linen sheath that could prevent syphilis, which he got 1100 men to try out. Linen was eventually supplanted by various animal skins, intestines and bladders. Casanova reportedly used, but did not like, them.
The invention of vulcanisation by Charles Goodyear in 1844 made rubber a viable condom material, though the earliest rubbers were as thick as a bicycle inner tube with a seam up the side. The advent of liquid latex in the 1930s allowed condoms to become thinner, stretchier and last longer on the shelf. Since then, condoms have remained fundamentally unchanged.
But not because there is no room for improvement. Condoms may be functional, but they have never really been sexy. In the beginning, that was part of the point, since the health authorities naively thought condoms would discourage people from having sex, thus halting the spread of disease.
A few radical alternatives have been attempted but none have risen to the challenge. Female condoms made their debut in 1993 to overwhelmingly negative reviews. Made of polyurethane and sporting a baggy and intrusive design, they frequently slipped out of place and made an unfortunate crinkling sound during sex. In 2006, German entrepreneur Jan Vinzenz Krause invented the spray-on latex condom, only to cast it aside when none of his volunteers were willing to insert anything other than a finger into the latex-spraying machine. The potentially troublesome 3 minute drying time was thus never properly road-tested.
The latex condom’s cheapness and simplicity are evidently hard to beat. But condoms may not remain so homogenous for long. Researchers and designers are re-examining them from bottom to top, looking at their intended functions of contraception and disease prevention and digging deep to see if those goals can’t be accomplished in a rather more elegant fashion.
Latex condoms operate under the basic principle of transferred sensation: the latex is sufficiently thin for the penis to feel contact. This is why the few genuine condom innovations that have been made are in the realm of thinness. But the obvious problem with making a material thinner is that it is more liable to break.
Resnic’s experience in this area gave him a compelling motivation to improve on the design. In 1994 he learned that he was HIV positive, the likely result of a split condom. He was flabbergasted that it was possible for a product on which people rely so heavily to simply fail.
But when Resnic, founder of a Los Angeles design company called Strata, began to investigate he quickly ran into a barrier. Condoms are made by dipping a mould into a vat of liquid latex which is allowed to dry before being rolled off. That means the design options are limited. The production method also explains why they have to be scrolled on.
So he decided to start from scratch, first turning to a new material: silicone. Stretchier and more flexible than latex, silicone also turns out to be better at blocking viruses and bacteria. It can also be folded accordion-style, which means it can be slipped on rather than rolled.
Where silicone really shines is in the pleasure department. Resnic’s “Origami” condoms are thicker and looser than latex ones, but this actually becomes a design feature. By adding textures and ridges, Resnic says he can make sex with condoms feel better for both partners than sex without. The result is what he describes as a hybrid sex toy and contraceptive (see photo).
The prototypes on display represent a series of brainstorms and experimentations with silicone’s mouldable potential. The latest version even includes a backflow-prevention reservoir at the tip. Instead of just including a teat at the end to catch semen – from which it can easily escape – Resnic has created a separate chamber blocked by a one-way valve that he compares to a lobster trap: liquid can get in, but it cannot get out again.
The condoms are now ready to be put to the test. Resnic and his business partner Chavez have received funding from the US National Institutes of Health to carry out clinical trials of three types of condom: a male condom, a female condom and a specialised anal sex condom which, if it passes, will be the first condom approved for anal sex by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The three separate trials, conducted by researchers at the California Family Health Council, RTI International and the Fenway Institute in Boston, are in the very earliest stage. Participants are given a couple of different prototypes and are asked to try them. For safety reasons, there is no partner involved in this stage, so participants are instead asked to simulate sex with their hand or a dildo.
The feedback thus far has been positive, at least according to testimony the company allowed me to see. “Terrific,” commented one tester. “Would make anyone use a condom,” said another. Still others said they were “really enjoying the feeling”.
The condoms still need to be tested by couples before larger-scale studies can start, and then there’s the commercialisation process. But Resnic and Chavez are convinced that their emphasis on pleasure is going to make condoms more popular. “The reason our focus is on pleasure is that’s what’s going to keep people using condoms,” Resnic says. “We’re developing ones that people are going to like.”
Elsewhere in the world there are other very good reasons for rethinking the condom. In many parts of the developing world where HIV is prevalent, resistance to condoms among men is fierce. For these people, silicone condoms may not gain much traction.
Instead, microbicide gels and creams have been seen as a discreet solution to the problem many women have getting their partners to use condoms. The polymer gel sticks to mucous membranes in the vagina and acts as a temporary internal condom that eventually dissolves, with the male partner none the wiser. Because it is a physical barrier, the gel stops viruses from infecting host cells, and has even been shown to interfere with the maturation process of HIV.
But in recent years enthusiasm for microbicides has waned, since chemicals that block HIV in the test tube often fail when tested in the real world. The Alliance for Microbicide Development, an alliance of pharma companies and not-for-profit labs, closed in 2009.
Not everyone has given up on them, though. Rabeea Omar, an infectious disease researcher at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, has held fast to the belief that the problem was not with the gel, but how it was applied. So he asked women to apply the gel using a standard applicator with a single hole at the top – the same kind used to apply yeast infection medications. Then he gave them an MRI scan to see where the gel was actually going and found that it stuck only to the surface of the cervix without covering the rest of the vagina.
So Omar and his colleagues set out to design a better applicator. Rather than having just one hole at the tip, theirs has many small holes all over the surface, spreading the gel more evenly. Results coming back from clinical trials conducted in Cameroon are extremely promising, he says. When applied with his team’s “Invisible Condom” applicator, MRI images show the gel is going and staying right where it needs to be, forming a thin layer that lasts for six hours.
Getting the applicator onto the market will cost up to $40 million. Aside from the money, the biggest challenge is the intimate nature of what is being tested. The controlled environment of the lab and its MRI machines must be abandoned in favour of real-world situations. Excusing himself for the indelicacy, Omar explains that “you cannot get into the bedroom to make sure couples use the product before sex.”
Omar’s voice is sincere when he describes his research, reminding me over and over of the injustice he and his colleagues want to address. “Men have always had control over the condom. Women have no say,” he says. “Our goal is just to help women.”
The sex-toy condom and the invisible one couldn’t represent two more opposing visions of the future of safe sex. But they have one important thing in common: their starting point was thinking outside the box.
Resnic is sure that the future will be even more diverse. “The era of there only being one rolled male condom is over,” he says. Instead, we will have a variety of devices that address the needs of everybody – male, female, straight, gay, wealthy, impoverished. It has only been in the past 50 years that people have gotten comfortable enough talking about sex to openly discuss condoms, he says. Hopefully it will not be as long before the rubber receives its long-awaited makeover.”
Hannah Krakauer is a writer based in Seattle
“Hysteria” this new movie is based on the play “In the Next Room or the Vibrator play,” which was presented at the Wilma Theatre this past March. I gave a talkback after one of the plays that offered esoteric information concerning the treatment of sexual pleasure during the Victorian Era. The following is a transcript of my talkback. I have re-posted since I believe the information is most relevant and the movie has just been released.
I shall apologize upfront, I’m going to answer this question (What is hysteria and why was it popularized during the Victorian Era?) by reading from my notes, I don’t want to leave anything out. Perhaps some of you can relate to this problem, and no, the vibrator doesn’t seem to have any positive effect on the lack of memory syndrome, at least not mine.
During this past week I have spent much time researching the symptoms of hysteria. I’ll mention just a few that I noted in my reading – faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, headaches, melancholy, emotional instability, aggression, depression, lower abdominal heaviness, loss of appetite for food or sex, tendency to cause trouble, and I could go on and on.
The history of the notion of hysteria goes back to ancient times; Hippocrates mentioned it in his writings, but it was Plato’s theory of the wandering uterus that is the source of the name. His theory describes a pattern of symptoms associated with the sexual frustration of women who remain childless too long after puberty. Freud and his colleagues considered it to be the first rudimentary theory of psychosexual frustration. Linguistically uterus and hysteria are related.
Galen, a prominent physician from the second century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or massage to “paroxysm” by a midwife. Galen proclaimed “Arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there follows twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure…from that time she is free of all the evil she felt.” And then we skip to the mid – 1800’s.
Why were so many women during the Victorian Era being diagnosed with this malady?
First there is the Victorian physician’s thoughts on women, keep in mind the majority of physicians were men. The textbook on physiology most in use among early Victorian medical students stated, “woman is greatly inferior to man in reasoning powers, extent of use, originality, and grandeur of computation, as well as in corporeal strength. Women possess a small range of intelligence and less permanence of complexion, less consistency, impetuosity courage, firmness of character except were affection subsist. She is more disposed to believe all things compared to all persons, to adopt the opinions and habits of others, has no originality, but follows and imitates men.” These words are the foundation of how the medical community treated Victorian women’s health status, including sexuality.
These women were not allowed to freely engage themselves in sexual acts unless it was with the specific purpose of procreation. A woman’s worth before marriage rested in her chastity, and once married she was expected to engage only in conjugal acts when necessary. Any sexual desires experienced by women were considered to be in contradiction with the proper definition of virtue. According to the text “The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America” sexual promiscuity was an “ominous indication of national decay, and not a sign of women’s liberation.”
Although this was the mainstream view during Victorian times, many early love manuals actually emphasized sexual intercourse for pleasure.However, women’s sexual satisfaction rested on the traditional model of sexual response, it assumes all women get as much pleasure from vaginal intercourse as men. Even though it has been shown that the majority of women do not achieve orgasm in this fashion, but through direct stimulation of the clitoris.
Women were also considered less highly sexed than men, therefore women who exhibited any form of excess sexual desire were believed by the medical community fated either to become prostitutes or enter insane asylums. According to the first full-length study on nymphomania, “eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing “secret pollutions” a euphemism for masturbating, may overstimulate women’s delicate nerve fibers and could lead to nymphomania.
We now have replaced the term nymphomania with sexual addiction, an equally controversial term within the field of sexology.
And so you ask why women didn’t take matters, literally into their own hands, and masturbate? Typical thoughts on female masturbation during this era.
Dr. Blackwell the first female physician to graduate from an American medical school, was a feminist and felt it was wrong to think that women were any less sexual than their male counterparts. And yet she too disapproved of masturbation, calling it, “a vice from which all other forms of unnatural vice springs.” She blamed it for domestic violence, and for making both women and men lose their self-control.
Girls were even restricted from riding horses or bicycles, sewing, and squatting down to do laundry because the feelings associated with these activities could lead to masturbation.
This past year has seen much news on the controversial female genital cuttings, also known as ritual clitoridectomy being performed by certain tribes in Africa. This procedure was also recommended during the Victorian Era. From what I have read clitoridectomies were not performed often, but I certainly noted several professional papers and books written during the Victorian Era promoting this procedure as a cure for female masturbation.
A former president of the Louisiana State Board of Health, felt masturbation resulted in ‘hopeless insanity.’ This insanity could also be inherited from the offspring of a person that masturbated. As a result, females thought to be masturbating were subject to a clitoridectomy.
Dr. Kellog, created his own signature food designed to curb masturbatory urges and sexual desires. He believed that a child should be served cold, instead of hot cereals at breakfast, in order to avoid the itch to masturbate. Think about this the next time you eat Kellog’s corn flakes.
Dr. Kellog also claimed that a masturbating woman was likely to suffer from nervous exhaustion and emaciation, as well flat-chestedness, memory loss, fickleness, and an irritable disposition.
In his text “Plain facts for old and young” he described numerous ways to stop children from masturbating. Specifically for females, his remedy was to pour a bit of pure carbolic acid, a toxic liquid and disinfectant, also known as phenol, directly on the clitoris so that it burned so badly that no girl would ever want to touch there again.
Although the drastic measures were by no means the norm, it still shows the strict code of virtue imposed on sexuality in the Victorian age.
As I mentioned earlier the mid-wife was the first practitioner to perform manual stimulation, but then the physicians realized this was a huge source of income because the treatments are constant, and the patient never dies from the therapy. Unfortunately the treatment consumed an inordinate amount of time, since the doctors were not always skilled at performing the task at hand. Then Kranzberg’s Second Law of technology: “Invention is the mother of necessity” came to rescue the physician from his tedious task and the vibrator was born. Initially it was water-powered, then steam-powered and finally the vibrator became one of the earliest devices to be converted to electricity.
Early electric vibrators were strictly for professional use in the doctor’s office, but as technology improved and the size of the vibrator got smaller, the devices were sold by retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. and advertised in women’s magazines, such as “Needlepoint” with photos of women using them to massage their scalp. It was the fifth appliance electrified, predating the vacuum cleaner and iron by a decade.
The play was true to the notion of doctors believing that the paroxysm they were creating had no relationship to orgasm. This belief also veiled the production of vibrators by over a dozen manufacturers, including Hamilton Beach and General Electric.
It is speculated that the sudden disappearance of vibrators from the market relates to them appearing in stag films. In Widow’s Delight, a porn film of the 1920s, a woman comes home with her date, chastely pushes him away, and then rushes into her bedroom, rips off her clothes, and pulls out her vibrator.
Physicians and manufacturers could no longer pretend what they were being used for. The vibrator only re-emerged due to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Hysteria was finally officially removed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952, however the source of female hysteria, sexual frustration still exists. Many in the medical profession continue to use the intercourse-followed-by-muscle spasm style orgasm as standard for female sexual satisfaction. There is an entire industry that has sprung up on this notion, it started with Viagra.
However, the sexuality of women is still a difficult subject for people to accept. An over the counter natural arousal gel for women can’t get TV air time because the very idea of female sexual desire makes people squirm. Yet Viagra and Trojan vibrators get prime time.
I will leave you with one final thought from Gina Ogden, sex researcher and author on topics relating to women, sex and spirituality, “Depending on how you define orgasm (and sexologists have so far been unable to agree on one, all-encompassing definition), there are also whole-body orgasms, thought orgasms, heart orgasms, love orgasms, and orgasms that reveal God, Goddess and the entire unifying principle of the universe…. women, they will tell you, that having an orgasm or two or ten is only one aspect of sexual satisfaction. They will say that sexual satisfaction is a layered and multidimensional experience, often fully as emotional and spiritual as it is physical.”
I thank you.
All my UK readers, please visit this gallery by June 2nd. Apologies for not posting sooner, but I just received notice regarding this show.
SKIN DEEP featuring The Great Wall Of Vagina – London Exhibition (Last week of show!!)
Jamie McCartney’s debut solo exhibition SKIN DEEP at the Hay Hill Gallery, Cork Street, features over 40 artworks celebrating both the human body and the human condition. Headlining the show is the long-awaited gallery premiere of The Great Wall of Vagina, a sculpture intended to change the lives of women. It is without a doubt succeeding.
This iconic sculpture is of great social importance and is a highly provocative response to the exponential rise in cosmetic labial surgeries. By confronting the viewer and revealing the diversity of female genital appearance, McCartney opposes any notion of a singularly “perfect” aesthetic, thereby forcing society to rethink its relationship with the vulva.
“It’s time our society grew up around these issues and I’m certain that art has a role to play.” Jamie McCartney
It’s not vulgar, it’s vulva. This isn’t just sensation, it is art with a social conscience. The sculpture has caught the public’s imagination, using the twin approaches of humour and spectacle. Having captured their attention it then educates about what normal women really look like ‘down there’. The Great Wall of Vagina, is recognised worldwide for its artistic impact and social importance. Created from 400 plaster casts taken from volunteers’ vulvas this “Vagina Monologues of sculpture” sculpture is succeeding in changing the lives of women around the world. How often can one say that and mean it? How often does a sculpture have it’s own website??
1. “Hi just wanted to say how stunning the exhibition is in Cork St. I sat across the street from it all week and finally got in to see it on Saturday. I am sure I am joining many women in saying thank you for putting my mind at rest. Nough said!” Charlotte, UK
2. “Thank you Jamie, your work does exactly what you set out to do. I feel better now!” Kimberley, USA
3. “I want to personally thank you, Jamie, for The Great Wall of Vagina. This work finally (finally!) presents women with what we look like, what is “normal”, what is OK, what our lovers see and love and are turned on by during intimate moments. As an adult woman (36) trying to see what other vuIvas look like ( as recently as a month ago), asking female friends if they too wonder what others look like, comparing and showing my vulva with close friends, I always came out with the frustration of how men see each other’s genitalia so easily in changing rooms and whatnot and how for women, porn seems to have this quasi labia-less pink orifice that does not resemble ours. The real-life comparison always stops at two, maybe three vulvas, if a hetero woman is lucky enough to have such friends who will giddily pull down their pants and open up. Of course Obgyns and midwives get their fair share of exposure but when I look up vagina or vulva on the Internet, I get few images and most are either of the porn variety or diseased. It pretty much sums up society’s perception of women’ s sexuality, I suppose.
So again, thank you. For the first time, I am able to see what I have been looking for and know it is from a trustworthy source. I’m sure I am the hundredth person to drone on and on about this but please understand how even in 2012, in our seemingly fore-thinking world, it was, until your work, impossible for a regular woman like me to see this.” Julie, Canada
4. “I read about your project in the newspaper today. What an important project! I hope it contributes to raise girls and womens’ confidence about their own body. I gave the link to your website to my teenage daughters so they can see how different women are. Well done! Morten, Norway
5. “This is the first piece of artwork I’ve seen my entire life that has actually had an impact on me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for that one moment you hear about where a piece of art actually moves you. I’d begun to think that was only for the truly artistic minded because that just never happened for me. This did. I love the concept, the execution, the humor. I love everything about it. It makes me so happy that you chose to do this and for the reasons you did. Thank you. ” Jayne, USA
Female genitalia have long been a source of fascination, recently of celebration but generally of confusion. McCartney has grasped the nettle to create this monumental sculpture all about this most intimate of parts. Five years in the making he persuaded women from all over the world to volunteer to be cast in an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the project. It has been continually in the press and on TV around the world during that time and since its completion in February last year. Channel 4’s “The Perfect Vagina” 2008 was perhaps the most significant in spreading awareness about this important artwork.
One remarkable thing is that the sculpture was entirely self-funded by McCartney, contrary to erroneous reports of Arts Council involvement. Perhaps more remarkable is that the artwork is not for sale. This is art for art’s sake rather than personal gain. McCartney is only interested in the piece being exhibited publically. He is actively seeking an art museum that would like to take it on permanent loan. He is also investigating touring the sculpture to other world cities.
“The Great Wall of Vagina is no use to anyone in storage, as it has been for the last year. This needs to be seen and I’ll do anything I have to in order to accomplish that”. Jamie McCartney
The four hundred plaster casts of vulvas, all of them unique, are arranged into ten large panels. This exhibition marks the very first time the sculpture has been shown in an art gallery and in its full, nine metre span. McCartney set out to make this project as broad and inclusive as possible. The age range of the women is from 18 to 76. Included are mothers and daughters, identical twins, transgendered men and women as well as a woman pre and post natal and another one, rather provocatively, pre and post labiaplasty.
Vulvas and labia are as varied as faces and many people, particularly women, don’t seem to know that. McCartney hopes this sculpture will help to quell that anxiety and combat the exponential rise, seen in recent years, of cosmetic labial surgeries. This worrying trend to create ‘perfect’ vaginas sets a worrying precedent for future generations of women. The medical community is right behind him:
“The Great Wall of Vagina is a work of exceptional importance for women’s understanding of body image, and one which the UK’s Sexual Health specialists & Gynaecologists would like to see publicised as widely as possible to help stem the tide of young women requesting unnecessary labial reduction surgery. Quite apart from that motive, the exhibition also contains other beautiful works of photography & sculpture (see my photo attached) – It should therefore be socially & and ethically newsworthy enough to warrant attention & debate.” Mr Peter Greenhouse MA MB BChir (Hons) Cantab FRCOG FFSRH Consultant in Sexual Health, Bristol Sexual Health Centre BS2 0JD UK
The sculpture makes for fascinating and revealing viewing which is a far cry from pornography. It is not erotic art. It is not about titillation. McCartney has pulled off an amazing trick, to deliberately make the sexual nonsexual. One is able to stare without shame but instead in wonder at this exposé of human variety. The educational aspects of the sculpture are highlighted on the new education page on the website.
The SKIN DEEP exhibition focuses on notions of beauty and society’s obsession with the physical self. Alongside The Great Wall of Vagina, McCartney premieres his new work, The Physical Photography series (themed, life-sized body photographs taken without a camera) as well as many of his other sculptures all sharing a contemporary, Surrealist twist. As a concession to all the requests to buy vagina panels McCartney also shows some specially created, limited edition vagina and penis sculptures, that are for sale to the public.
So a new star has appeared on the London art scene. Over 500 people attended the launch last week of his truly groundbreaking exhibition that has people talking around the world. Cork Street in London has rarely seen such scenes. It marks a return to form for this most hallowed of art districts, once again breaking the mould to deliver a new art phenomenon.
With 400 vaginas down one wall and a life-size photo of a naked Jesus opposite it is no wonder people are flocking to the gallery. McCartney has taken London’s art scene by storm. A quote from this month’s Art of England perhaps sums it all up, “Like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst… the world will be talking about Jamie McCartney for a long time to come”.
Notes to Editors:
The exhibition runs until June 2nd 2012
Hay Hill Gallery, 5a Cork Street, London, W1S 3NY T: 020 7439 1001
Opening hours: Monday ‐ Saturday, 10.30am‐6pm FREE ADMISSION
Jamie McCartney will be at the gallery to discuss his artworks and sign copies of Great Wall of Vagina book every Saturday from 11:00 am until 5:00 pm.
All artworks in the exhibition are for sale (except The Great Wall of Vagina). With prices ranging from £500 to £25K there are artworks to suit any budget.
Jamie McCartney is a British artist who lives and works in Brighton but trained at Hartford Art School (USA), graduating in 1991. Initially he ran his own forge, making steel sculptures. He then moved into SFX in the film industry, working on feature films such as Blackhawk Down and Casino Royale. His degree in Experimental Studio Art and SFX skills continue to inform his work. No subject is too controversial, nor any process or material off limits.