As the District launches a new campaign encouraging women to put female condoms into their vaginas, some activists are focused on getting the device into a different orifice. Michael Petrelis, 51, has been promoting the use of the female condom among gay men since the 90’s. “When I first learned about the device, I thought the only barrier prevention involved covering the dick,” says Petrelis. Then he found out there was a way to cover his partner’s anus instead. “The female condom put the bottom in charge, in control, and that was such a good thing. And when I’ve been a top—-the insertive partner—-what I’ve liked about the bottom wearing the device is that my penis wasn’t wrapped in plastic.”
The female condom was approved by the FDA for use in the vagina in 1993. The regulatory body has yet to deem the device safe and effective for use in anal sex, but that hasn’t stopped Peterlis and other public health advocates from noting the device’s anal benefits:
For one, the female condom can adhere to the lining of the anus and provide a roomier experience than the male condom. It also opens up the field for a wider range of sexual accessories: “With the penile device you have to use the water based lubricants. You can’t use Crisco,” says Petrelis. The female condom also allows receptive partners to protect themselves against HIV with partners who refuse to use a male condom. The only thing that’s not sexy about the female condom? The name. “I mean, when you say female condom, I don’t think a gay guy is going to listen, because it’s for a woman. It says ‘female.’ I think it can be a turn-off to gay men,” says Petrelis.
Some female condom activists have pushed to re-brand the device with a more inclusive title, like the “receptive partner condom” or the “reality condom.” But the female condom’s branding limitations go beyond the name. Some activists are reluctant to promote an item that hasn’t received the FDA’s official stamp. That’s why Community Education Group, one of the five nonprofits distributing female condoms around D.C., is currently only engaged in promoting the device among heterosexual men (and women). “We haven’t received permission to publicly promote the condom [for anal sex] because it’s not FDA approved for that,” says the Group’s Hilary Viens. “Even though we do know it can be effective, that’s not something that we can really state yet.”
Other female condom promoters are concerned that a focus on gay men might alienate the female condom’s main target audience. “Eventually, we want the female condom to be accepted as a tool for women having sex with men, men having sex with men, women having anal sex,” says Zoe Lehman, who promotes female condom use through the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project. Last week, Lehman helped launched Web-based initiative ringonit.org, which takes its tagline—-“Put a ring on it!”—-from Beyonce’s Grammy-winning single “Single Ladies.” The Web site announces up-front that female condoms “are a great safer sex option that can be used by both women and men for vaginal and anal sex.” But Lehman has encountered some reluctance to promote the device for all its potential uses. “Unfortunately, there are some places in this country that are still uncomfortable with anal sex,” she says. “People get very uncomfortable about that, and it’s already going to be difficult to sell to the general public.” The media has also tended to shy away from anal; Petrelis was miffed that the Washington Post‘s recent story on female condoms failed to mention the device’s use among gay men.
Pitching the condom to gay men will require promoters to get real comfortable with anal sex: Using the female condom anally requires some slight modifications to the device. Anal instructions are not currently included in the female condom’s packaging, but the D.C. Department of Health posts online guidelines for how to insert the device. In short, you can either insert the condom by draping it over the penis, or sticking it directly into the anus; many users choose to ditch the condom’s removable inner ring to aid comfort; if the penis is hitting against the end of the female condom, it could compromise the device’s effectiveness.
In order for everyone to get comfortable shilling the female condom to gay men, Peterlis says that the public must first acknowledge that anal sex isn’t just a gay thing. “I hope you’re sitting down for this: Straight people have anal sex, too,” says Petrelis. “It’s not just gay men who need to know how to use it anally.” Promoting the condom’s anal use among straight women could be a vital tool in preventing the spread of HIV: Women who engage in anal sex are at a higher risk of contracting the virus, particularly if they are chiefly using condoms for pregnancy prevention. “I’ve got to put my hair down here and say that regardless of straight, gay, in-between, vaginal, anal, there is still a great reluctance to talk honestly in America about s-e-x,” says Petrelis. “We’re going to have to get over that if we’re going to protect ourselves.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.