“I’m Going to a Condom Conference in New Orleans!”

L.V. Anderson and her editor Allison Benedikt talk about the challenges of reporting on condom development, conducting lambskin experiments, and more.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

This story is part of a special Slate Plus feature package on “Why Don’t We Have a Better Condom?” Be sure to check out the other Slate Plus exclusives related to this story, including a full audio version of the piece and an essay from author L.V. Anderson on why she felt compelled to write 9,000 words on condoms.

Allison Benedikt: Lately, whenever anyone asks me how work is going, I tell them, “Great! I’ve been editing this 9,000 word story about condoms!” It’s a really excellent conversation starter, so thank you for that, Laura.

L.V. Anderson: Condoms are a great conversation starter because they are near universal—almost everyone has used condoms, or at least thought about using condoms. Yet I had never given them much serious thought until I started my Fresca; I had just taken for granted that I had to use latex condoms to protect myself, even though they kind of suck and sometimes break. (I‘ve had unpleasant side effects on hormonal birth control, so condoms have been my first-line defense against pregnancy for many years.)

But when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced its “Next Generation of Condom” program, I realized I didn’t know much about the history of this thing that was a pretty important part of my sex life. And one thing I’ve realized while doing research is that my ingrained condom attitudes and habits are very much a product of my time—because I grew up in post-AIDS ’90s, I heard “use a condom, use a condom, use a condom” ad nauseam in sex ed. But if I had been born 20 years earlier, I might have grown up thinking of condoms as a joke or a trifle.

Benedikt: I imagine in the course of reporting your piece, you’ve talked to friends about their experiences with condoms. Have you ever found anyone who likes using condoms? Men or women?

Anderson: I have talked to people who don’t mind using condoms, or who think the peace of mind afforded by condoms is well worth it. I quote one sociology paper in my story in which the researcher asked lots of people about how they felt about condoms, and the most positive thing she heard was “they don’t bother me.” It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Some people dismiss the experiences of people who don’t like condoms—Dan Savage, for instance, once went on a rant on the Savage Lovecast about how condom aversion is all in your head, and no one can really tell the difference between protected and unprotected sex. I think that’s an unhelpful attitude: There are obviously lots of good reasons to use condoms, but I think it’s important to validate people’s experiences and acknowledge that yes, there are real drawbacks to using latex condoms. If there weren’t drawbacks, condom use rates wouldn’t be so dismal.

Benedikt: Let’s talk about your reporting process a bit. How did you get inside this world of condom inventors?

Anderson: I started out by talking to the Gates Foundation’s publicist, who gave me contact info for the people who had received these $100,000 grants to build a better condom. Then I just started emailing and calling those grantees to see if they’d talk to me. Mark McGlothlin (who invented the polyurethane condom in the ’80s and is working on a “reconstituted collagen condom”) and Ron Frezieres (who has run dozens if not hundreds of clinical condom trials for the California Family Health Council) were happy to talk about their experiences working in and around the condom industry over the last 30 years. As often happens when you’re reporting, I heard names of other potential sources from the people I talked to. Several people told me to talk to Bill Potter, the former head of R&D at LIG, who was described to me as a latex genius by former FDA medical device chief Don Marlowe.

It turns out the condom world is rather insular—everyone knows everyone else. Part of the reason they know one another, as I describe in my piece, is because they all attend meetings of the ASTM subcommittee that deals with revising the condom standards that the FDA uses. I saw some of this in action when I went to the ASTM conference in New Orleans in December. (I told people, “I’m going to a condom conference in New Orleans,” and everyone thought that sounded very exciting, but really it was a very staid, early-morning meeting at the Sheraton.)

Benedikt: Do you think of the condom inventors you spoke to as entrepreneurs—guys (and they are all guys, at least in your story) who see an opportunity to make money by creating a better condom than the one we’ve got—or as men on a mission to, I guess, make sex better?

Anderson: More the latter. Danny Resnic, the inventor of the Origami condom, is very driven by the idea that latex condoms are bad and that we need condoms that will make sex feel good. Frank Sadlo, who invented TheyFit condoms, mentioned the public health ramifications of his product several times when we spoke. Adam Glickman, the founder of Condomania, is clearly a very talented entrepreneur, but he also sees his mission as doing good by encouraging people to protect themselves. There’s money in condoms—domestic annual sales are somewhere between $400 million and $600 million—but I don’t think anyone got into this industry to make money. After all, you have to invest so much time and energy and money to bring a new condom to the market; if you just want to make money, there are lots of easier, quicker ways than to build a better condom.

Benedikt: Hanging out with these guys in their condom inventing spaces must have been interesting. Any good stories that didn’t make it into your piece?

Anderson: I had a fun time meeting Ron Frezieres and his colleague Terri Walsh in Ron’s office at the California Family Health Council, where he just has a ton of weird sex stuff lying around. (I should clarify that he is a very sweet, friendly, grandfatherly man.) He showed me some prototypes of a prophylactic that has never made it to the market: a female condom attached to a thong, so you are literally having sex through your underwear. I wonder why that never caught on!

Benedikt: Oh wow. That is … interesting. Did you ever feel uncomfortable around all this “weird sex stuff”? And did you run into any women in this field?

Anderson: I don’t think I ever did feel uncomfortable, because everyone was very matter-of-fact about it. This is their job; condoms are boring to them. It was actually very refreshing to meet these older men who were extremely straightforward, and not at all embarrassed or creepy, about sex research.

Ron’s colleague Terri Walsh, whom I don’t quote in my Fresca, is a woman with decades of experience in the field of contraceptive research. The marketing vice president for Ansell, the maker of Lifestyles, is a woman named Carol Carrozza, whom I mention briefly. The current owner of Condomania (which is now a website, not a physical store) is a woman. But most of the people I spoke with are men. And I suppose you could speculate that the field is dominated by men for obvious reasons—men are more directly affected by condoms, and, according to research, men are more likely to dislike condoms and to feel that they interfere with pleasure than women are.

I actually felt a certain amount of freedom writing about this topic as a woman. I think if I were a man, everyone would cast doubt on my motivations for writing this piece—like, “oh, you just wanted to whine about how much you hate condoms.” As a woman I think I’m partially immune to that sort of criticism, because women aren’t shamed as much as men for disliking condoms.

Benedikt: I know you had been thinking about this piece for a while before setting off to report and write it. How long did it take you to conceptualize what the piece would really be about, and then how long to report and write it? (In your answer, feel free to skip the part about how long it took your editor to edit it. She’s sorry!)

Anderson: That’s OK! It took me way longer to conceptualize and report the piece than it took you to edit it. The idea came out of a series of brainstorming meetings last spring. I wrote my first proposal for it, based on preliminary research, last May. I knew then that I wanted to focus on the regulatory process, and to write about lambskin and polyurethane condoms, but I didn’t yet know exactly what the structure of the piece would be.

I took my Fresca leave—four weeks off to breathe and eat and sleep condoms!—in September and October; that was when I went to L.A. and found out about TheyFit condoms, which ended up being a pretty major section of my Fresca. I wrote my first draft in October, but I’ve continued to do additional reporting since then—as recently as this week, I was on the phone with sources to confirm and fact-check my story. A lot of what I write about happened between 10 and 30 years ago, and people’s memories are faulty, so I tried to verify each story from more than one angle.

Benedikt: Was reporting on an earlier era the biggest challenge? What were others?

Anderson: Yes, that was definitely the biggest challenge. I had to go on people’s imperfect memories, combined with old news stories, and unsurprisingly those two sources sometimes conflicted. I wasn’t there when scientists were submerging condom-covered vibrators into beakers in the ’80s. I did my best to patch together descriptions from the incomplete sources I had.

Another challenge was finding someone who uses lambskin condoms to tell me about how it feels! I apparently know no one who uses them. I convinced the guy I’m dating to try a lambskin condom with me For Journalism, but all the other young people I asked about lambskin condoms looked at my quizzically and asked “They still make those?” (To be fair, before I started researching this story, I didn’t know they still made lambskin condoms, either! I thought they were a historical relic.)

Benedikt: I hope, now that this piece is out in the world and people are reading and learning and sharing and enjoying, you can go back to having sex without thinking about work. Until the book deal.