Condoms are a barrier method of contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. A male condom is a thin sheath that is placed over the user’s erect penis before sexual activity to prevent direct contact of the penis with the partner’s skin, mucosa, and genital secretions. Condoms have been in existence for thousands of years, but have only started to become widely used within the past one hundred years.
The first appearance of the condom came around 11,000 B.C. Two caves in France known as Grotte des Combarrelles are known to have paintings on the walls that scientists claim represents condoms. Scientists believe that this was the first evidence of condoms existing.
In ancient Egypt, historians believed people used a linen sheath around the penis as protection against troublesome insects and tropical diseases. To prevent infection, the Chinese wrapped oiled silk paper around the penis, while the Japanese used leather and tortoiseshell sheaths. During this time period, using materials made from animal parts was very common. The Romans developed condoms made of goats' bladders.
In Asia, particularly China and Japan, the first condom to be used was the Glans condom. The Glans condom only covered the head of the penis, and was primarily used as a form of birth control, but was also used to protect against infections. In China, obscure materials such as silk or lamb intestines were used in making the condom. In Japan, the materials such as tortoise shell or animal horn were used.
Practically unheard of up until now, condoms first appeared in a published document in the 16th century. An Italian inventor, Gabrielle Fallopius, produced the first documented work on the dangers of the STI syphilis. He invented and recommended using a protective linen sheath soaked in chemicals in order to prevent the spread of syphilis. After the linen soaked, the manufacturer would dry it and attach a ribbon on the bottom, which would later be used to tie it around the shaft. Gabrielle Fallopius conducted an experiment consisting of 1,100 participants that determined the effectiveness of the condom in the protection against syphilis. None of the participants became infected with the disease, which proved the success of the first condom that effectively protected against STIs.
Once Fallopius published a work on condom STI protection, people became more skeptical of the idea of the condom and controversy on whether to use it or not began to stir in scientific and religious communities. In 1605, Catholic theologian Leonardus Lessius claimed that condoms are immoral, thus becoming the first documented religious figure who opposed the use of the condom. Condoms made from animal intestines became widely available to the public. Even though condoms were now widely available, many people reused them because of their expensive nature. Reusing linen condoms is unsanitary and can even increase the possibility of spreading STIs, but many people were not aware of this fact. Published by the English Birth Rate Commission in 1666 for the first time ever in recorded history, the word “condons” (which eventually evolved into today’s English word “condoms”) was credited for the drop in birth rate.
By this time, the public was becoming much more aware of condoms and their uses. Again, as public awareness increased, so did the skepticism on the whether condoms protected against pregnancy and STIs. English physician Daniel Turner reportedly stated his belief that condoms encourage men to have unsafe sex with different partners. In fact, around this time, many physicians decried the use of condoms on moral grounds. Nevertheless, the condom market continued to expand. Condoms, often made of either "skin" (intestine or bladder treated with sulfur or lye) or linen soaked in chemicals, became more widely available and began being sold in public places, like pubs or markets.
In the early 1800s, many people’s views about condoms began to expand. Some people began to advocate publicly for the use of condoms, while others continued to discredit condom use. Members of parliament in the United Kingdom tried to ban condoms because they believed that they did not offer sufficient protection against syphilis, and that they encouraged unsafe and irresponsible sex. Although people discredited the use of condoms, the condom market was expanding rapidly now that they were available to the working class and not only the upper class. Up until this point in history, all condoms had been made out of linen or animal skin. In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented rubber vulcanization, but the first rubber condom was not produced until 1855. Just a few short years later, the majority of rubber companies were producing condoms as well. These condoms were reusable, which meant they were much more affordable. However, skin condoms still tended to be more popular, mainly because they were lower in cost. One of the problems with early rubber condoms was that they were “custom made” (each person was fitted specifically), yet they could easily fall off as they only covered the glans of the penis. Eventually, condom manufacturers realized that they could mass produce condoms that would fit everyone at a much more reasonable cost. The history of condoms was forever changed when the rubber condom was invented because they now successfully protected against pregnancy and STIs while also being very widely available. These newly invented rubber condoms are also what caused people to refer to condoms as “rubbers,” a term that remains in use today.
Many advancements to condoms came within the 1900s. These advancements began when condoms were distributed to military personnel during World War I as they were shown to lower the rate of transmitting STIs. Before the war, the majority of condoms distributed in Europe were provided by Germany, but this changed drastically throughout the World War I. Julius Fromm, a German chemist, created a new method of manufacturing condoms, in which he dipped glass molds into raw rubber solution. This method allowed the rubber to adopt whatever bumps or ridges were on the glass, thus giving the condoms a texture. His line of condoms, Fromm's Act, remains popular in Germany today. In 1918 a judge ruled that condoms could be sold and advertised for the prevention of disease, although they could not be sold as contraceptives. As a result, condom sales doubled in the early 1920s. In the later 1920s, latex was invented. With the invention of latex came the first latex condom. The manufacturing of the latex condom involved a process with rubber suspended in water, which allowed the latex to mold into the shape of a penis. The Young’s Rubber Company produced the first latex condom. These condoms were mass produced and much cheaper than linen condoms due to the minimal amount of labor required. The London Rubber Company created Durex, the first latex condom brand, which is still a well-known and widely-distributed brand today. Throughout the 1920s, skin condoms lessened in popularity as latex condoms began to be mass produced. Although most people started to use latex, these condoms were not known for their effectiveness. The latex condoms that were being produced often leaked and were unreliable. Therefore, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) mandated that a condom was a drug, and that every condom must be tested before it left the factory. The acceptance and popularity of condoms continued to grow throughout the mid 1900s. In 1957, Durex created the first condom with lubrication. But even with all the improvements and increased acceptance, the use and sale of condoms didn’t really skyrocket until the AIDS epidemic. When scientists discovered HIV to be a sexually transmitted infection, condoms began to be marketed as a way to prevent acquiring HIV. People discovered that condoms were the most effective and, in fact, one of the only barrier methods that would allow them to have sex while protecting against the disease. Now that condoms were widely believed to be a contraceptive and one of the best ways to protect against sexually transmitted infections, they became extremely popular and known around the world. In 1997, Durex created the first condom company website, marking a milestone in the progress of condom use worldwide.
2000s - Today
After Durex created the first condom company website, condoms became a common household term. Sexual education throughout the United States now incorporates and encourages the use of condoms in the practice of safe sex. Today, you can find many variations of the classic condom, from different sizes, to shapes, to colors, and even flavors. If the cost of condoms discourages you from using them, many groups now give out free condoms as a way to promote safe sex. These organizations include Planned Parenthood, CondomUSA.com, and a majority of college campuses. These days, condom use is practiced by billions across the world and is one of the best ways to promote and practice safe sex.
The female condom was invented many years after the male condom. The idea for the female condom first came during the year of 1937. That year, an example of what a female condom might look like surfaced, but the female condom was not actually invented until the 1980s. In 1984, a Danish physician named Lasse Hessel devolved a prototype for the first female condom. It contained three important aspects that successfully reduced the risk of sexually transmitted infections and that protected against unintended pregnancy. First, it contained a sheath that lined the vagina. Second, it included an external ring that covered any external genitalia, and that prevented the condom from being pushed deep into the vagina during intercourse. Lastly, it had an internal ring which both assisted with initial insertion into the vagina and prevented the condom from being pushed into the cervix, which could be very painful. After Hessel developed a prototype, he partnered with a chemical product company named Wisconsin Pharmacal Co. He further developed the design, making sure that the female condom would meet the FDA requirements. The first generation female condom, named FC1, is made from polyurethane. The second generation female condom, named FC2 is made from synthetic nitrile. The FC2 was designed to take the place of FC1, as it provided the same safety and efficiency but at a lower cost. It was also designed to make less distracting (and potentially mood-killing) crinkling noises compared to the FC1.
With perfect use, the female condom has a 5% failure rate. However, with typical use (usually have some leakage or not inserted perfectly) it has a 21% failure rate. The female condom can also be used by homosexual males during anal sex. The worldwide use of female condoms is much lower than that of male condoms, but the World YMCA is trying to push an initiative for increased female condom use. In 2005, the YMCA contacted international donors and health clinics and requested that they purchase 180 million condoms, stating that “Female condoms remain the only tool for HIV prevention that women can initiate and control.” As a result, 12 million female condoms were distributed to women throughout developing countries. Although the YMCA continues to push for the use of the female condom, in 2005, between 6 and 9 billion male condoms have been distributed compared to only 12 million female condoms.
Today, condom use is in the billions and continues to grow every year. The transmitting of STIs has significantly dropped as well as the number of unintended pregnancies due to condom use by people across the world. Many types of condoms are now available to fit and suit every individual just as they please. Every individual has a different preference on size, texture, and lubrication and today’s condom market allows people to choose whatever they prefer for their sexual experiences.
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Last Updated 18 November 2015.