An unpacked female condom, shown next to an orange for size perspective.

Photo by Clár McWeeney

Non-Hormonal Birth Control

Internal (female) condoms 101

Yes, they exist

by Clár McWeeney, and Nicole Telfer
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Top things to know:

  • Female condoms (also known as internal condoms) are a barrier-type of contraceptive that is inserted into the vagina prior to having sex

  • Female condoms protect against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

  • People may enjoy sex more with a female condom because they feel safe knowing that they are in control of their sexual and reproductive health

  • Female condoms require practice to be inserted properly

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The most popular and accessible type of condom is the male (external) condom, which is placed on an erect penis just before sex. The male condom is an old form of contraception and STI protection—some suggest that the male condom dates back to ancient Egypt, but the first documented description of an male condom was by Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio in 1564 in his book De Morbo Gallico, as a method for preventing syphilis (1,2).

Although not as well known, female condoms also exist. They are placed inside the vagina, and they’re different from the dental dam (a barrier placed just outside of the vagina for oral sex).

What are they?

The female condom can be inserted into the vagina up to eight hours before having sex (3,4). Most commercially available models have a flexible ring on both ends—an internal ring to hold the condom up inside the vagina, and an external ring to prevent the condom from being pushed up into the vagina. The external ring also covers part of the vulva (5). Bedsider has a great guide to inserting a female condom.

The female condom that’s available to purchase now in 2018 is a fairly recent invention, developed by Lasse Hessel and approved as a medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994 (5). But like male condoms, the female condom dates far back—the ancient Greek legend of Minos describes the use of an internal condom made out of a goat’s bladder (1,5). The first modern description of a female condom was in 1907, in a patent for a method of collecting animal semen for breeding (5).

A lesser-known and less-available type of female condom is the bikini condom. These are underwear with an opening in the crotch with fasteners that female condoms can attach to, so that the condom is not pushed completely into the vagina. Another type of bikini condom is underwear that has a condom attached in a sealed compartment in front of the vulva, which can be opened before sex (5,6).

Why use a female condom?

Female condoms are often made of polyurethane or nitrile, which is safe to use for people who are allergic to latex. Another benefit to polyurethane or nitrile female condoms is that they can be used with all types of lubricants (4,7). Be sure to check the packaging before use if you have latex allergies or use an additional lubricant for compatibility.

The female condom doesn’t require an erection for use, unlike the male condom, which requires an erection before it’s put on.

Some people find that after sufficient foreplay, stopping to open, find, or put a condom on a penis can disrupt erections and kill the mood—female condoms can circumvent this, as they can be inserted up to eight hours before sex (3,4). Having your partner watch you insert an internal condom could also be a kickstart to foreplay (7).

After sex, the female condom doesn’t need to be removed immediately, but if your partner has ejaculated, it can get messy when you stand up afterwards (4,8). It’s best to remove the female condom lying down. Grasp the outer ring of the condom and twist it around a few times to seal up any ejaculate fluids for a quick and easy clean up process (4,8)

Female condoms are designed and approved for vaginal sex, but people have also reported using them for anal sex (9,10). While female and male condoms both function as barrier methods, more research is needed into how well female condoms protect against the spread of STIs during anal sex (10,11). Female condoms are effective at preventing STIs during vaginal sex (4).

How to use a female condom

1. Remove the condom from its wrapper, and unroll the condom. Pinch the inner closed ring together.

2. Insert the ring as high as possible into your vaginal canal. It's similar to inserting a menstrual cup or tampon. Use your finger to ensure that the condom is deep inside of your vagina.

3. Remove your finger. The rim of the condom opening should rest just outside of the vaginal opening.

Increased sexual pleasure?

There are some other advantages to using a female condom, including the potential for increased sexual pleasure.

Female condoms give women and people with vaginas full control of the protection used during sex. Participants in a focus group found sex more pleasurable with female condoms, precisely because they were in control of their protection from STIs and pregnancy. These people reported that they couldn’t always fully trust their partners to use a male condom, which caused them to worry about the consequences of unprotected sex instead of fully enjoying their sexual experience (12).

Some participants in the focus group commented that sex was more physically enjoyable with a female condom—researchers think this might be due to the lubricant on the condom (12). Like most male condoms, female condoms are usually pre-lubricated with silicone fluids or water-based lubricants (5).

The female condoms’ rings might also provide extra pleasure. The outer ring of the female condom may provide additional stimulation to the clitoris for some people, and some people may feel additional stimulation from the internal ring during deep penetration (7).

Since the penis is not constricted by a tight male condom, partners may find sensations feel better for them too (4).

Whichever condom you use, keeping them in accessible places and including them in your foreplay can make them a part of arousal, rather than an obstacle

Some disadvantages

There are a few downsides to female condoms, and not everybody finds them pleasurable.

One of the biggest drawbacks is that they require practice to properly insert, but this gets easier with frequent use (4,8). Try inserting the female condom a couple of times before using it during sex (8).

The requirement that the female condom be inserted prior to initiating any sexual contact or arousal can be seen as both an advantage and a disadvantage—on one hand, you don’t have to interrupt the heat of the moment, but on the other, it means you need to anticipate when you’ll have sex. Inserting the condom before any foreplay is easier than during foreplay, as the vagina and pelvis are relaxed (8).

Noise can be another issue. It’s true, these condoms can sometimes make unexpected sounds during sex. Try adding more lube, and be sure to insert the condom 20 minutes before initiating sex so that condom will adhere to the walls of the vagina (8). Allowing for this extra adherence time may also make sex more natural-feeling and sensitive (8).

Female condoms are effective at preventing unintended pregnancy, but male condoms are more effective. When used correctly, 5 out of every 100 women using female condoms will get pregnant in one year (4). This is comparable to the male condom, which has a protection rate of around 2 pregnancies per 100 women over the time span of one year when used correctly (4).

When used incorrectly, 21 out of every 100 women using the female condom will get pregnant in one year (4). Time should be taken to practice and learn how to properly insert and use the female condom.

Female condoms are not as popular as male condoms, which could be due to the lack of availability, higher price, and/or preference. Female condoms are not generally available in grocery stores, drug stores, or in vending machines. Their sale is usually limited to specialty stores, some pharmacies and reproductive health centers, or online retailers.

Like male condoms, female condoms aren’t reusable. Female condoms shouldn’t be used in conjunction with male condoms—that can increase the chances of tearing or slippage (8). It may take a few tries to get used to female condoms, but practice makes perfect.

We asked the Clue community about their experiences with female condoms.

“I felt empowered because [the female condom] was mine. While normal condoms are more of a guy thing.” —Anonymous

“I loved having control over the method. Being the sole decision maker for a) when (at which point in time) to use the condom and b) putting it on and knowing it was being used correctly—this felt great. In terms of feel it was fine for me—the [material] is thicker than typical condoms, and because there is more material, it folds over on itself a bit and feels a bit material-heavy, but I could get used to this. Maybe future female condoms can be “ultra thin” as well. My partner was less keen, he said it was ‘like having sex with a jellyfish.’” —Anonymous

“I liked the idea of putting it [the female condom] in before arriving [to a partner’s home]; in practice, rolling on a condom is pretty sexy and fun.” —Anonymous

“Most of my issues have to deal with the fact that the [female condom] material is not tight against the vagina—as male condoms might be on a penis, fingers, or dildo. I don't see how that can be improved while keeping the internal condom in.” —Anonymous

“I did not insert the female condom properly because I was not patient enough. Because of this, it would not stay in correctly. I really liked the feeling of being in charge of my own sexual health, but I think if I continue to use female condoms, then sex will need to be more planned/scheduled so that I have time to insert the female condom properly.” —Anonymous

“The noise the condom made was something we laughed about. It's not something either of us plans to have again.” —Anonymous

Understanding your body can improve usage of non-hormonal birth control. Click here to learn more about Clue Birth Control.

Article was originally published April 8, 2019.

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