Bill Gates’ latest charitable contribution in the field of public health: $100,000 to the inventor of a condom that actually feels good. Grand Challenges in Global Health, a research foundation established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is offering the grant money for the best “testable hypothesis” for “the next generation condom,” one that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure.” The goal is to eliminate one of the major barriers to condom use: “From the male perspective,” the call for entries says, “condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable.”
Some critics have ribbed Gates for pledging money to alleviate this male woe. Gawker called the initiative a boon for “creeps” and “pervs” who forgo condoms because “they just don’t feel good, amirite? You know what I’m talking about, fellas. [Exaggerated wink.]” Concluded Popular Science, “Men are idiots.” Commenters piled on: “I’m really bored with the whole, ‘condoms reduce sensitivity!’ whining. If you can orgasm while wearing a condom, it can’t be THAT bad.”
Seriously? Bill Gates wants to devote a tiny fraction of his considerable fortune toward making condoms feel amazing, and some people are like, “Meh! Sex isn’t THAT bad. Suck it up, dudes!” Of course condom discomfort isn’t an excuse for anyone to pressure a partner into unsafe sex. But pervy creeps are not the only ones who will benefit from a better condom. For, uh, some women, today’s options can be physically irritating, drying, weird smelling, and gross tasting. Some of us just prefer to have sex with partners who rate the experience better than “not that bad.” Many of us accept condoms (or safe alternatives to intercourse) over the risk of unplanned pregnancy and STIs, but we don’t have to like it—and that’s a problem that’s worth solving.
Underlining all of this razzing of Gates’ initiative are some pretty backward messages: Safe sex shouldn’t feel good; avoiding consequences like pregnancy and STIs ought to require personal sacrifice; men should be happy to just be having sex, regardless of the circumstances. These beliefs reinforce the idea that sex is inherently either dangerous or unpleasant. We now have the opportunity to leverage technology to cut through some of that moralizing around safe sex. Gates’ money—and the social stamp of his approval—is crucial to that effort: Given the stigma that surrounds it, it can be difficult to attract outside innovators to the sex industry. As the call for entries notes, “Condoms have been in use for about 400 years yet they have undergone very little technological improvement in the past 50 years.” They’re not that bad, but they could always get better.