When I became sexually active almost 50 years ago, the consensus among men was that condoms impaired the penis’ sensitivity and ruined sex. In popular parlance, using a condom was “showering in a raincoat.”

But according to a recent Indiana University study, most twenty-first-century men feel that in the context of enjoyable sex, condoms don’t impair sensitivity, that they’re more like showering with a ring on one finger.

Two reasons account for this change of heart: sexually transmitted infections (STIs), notably AIDS, and men’s growing appreciation of sex based on gentle mutual whole-body erotic touch.

I’d … Uh … Like to … Uh… Buy.…

Condoms were once called prophylactics. The term means “preventive.” Condoms prevented two possible downsides of sex, unwanted pregnancy and transmission of STIs.

Today condoms sit on pharmacy shelves. But until the 1980s, they were squirreled away behind the counter, which forced men to look a pharmacist in the eye and request them, which proved daunting for many young men. In the movie, The Summer of ’42, a World-War-II-era young-adult woman offers to sexually initiate a teenage boy, but insists that he provide condoms. He runs to a pharmacy but becomes so tongue-tied he can hardly ask for what he wants.

During the 1960s, the Pill largely eliminated condoms’ contraceptive rationale. The Pill gave reproductive control to women, and freed men from pharmacy awkwardness. As a young adult in the 1960s, I recall feeling relieved when the conversation turned sexual and the girl said she was on the Pill. Yes! The Pill quickly became the country’s most popular contraceptive, and condom sales plummeted.

The Condom Come-Back

But by the early 1970s, the Pill’s tenth anniversary, condom sales rebounded. As the post-World War II Baby Boom generation came of age, STI rates soared and the old infections, syphilis and gonorrhea, were joined by new ones: chlamydia, genital herpes, and genital warts, among others. Condoms prevented transmission of all of them and sales increased.

Condoms also emerged from behind drug store counters. Men no longer had to request them.

Meanwhile, pioneering sex researchers William Masters, M.D. and Virginia Johnson debunked the raincoat myth. Masters and Johnson, the inventors of sex therapy, cured a great deal of premature ejaculation, difficulty ejaculating, and erectile dysfunction by adjusting the way men made love.

Most men’s default position was porn-like fixation on the penis and vagina. Masters and Johnson urged men to focus less on the genitals and more on kissing, cuddling, and mutual whole-body massage, gentle erotic touch from head to toe. Their approach worked wonders, curing around 90 percent of premature ejaculation and ejaculatory difficulties, and about one-third of ED.

Before Masters and Johnson, most men thought sex happened only in the penis and only during intercourse. If a condom covered men’s one and only sexual part during the one and only activity that was sex, well then, condoms had to interfere.

But if the foundation of great sex was sensual snuggling from head to toe from the first kiss to afterglow, then the penis represented only a small fraction of men’s erotically excitable skin and intercourse comprised only a small fraction of sex—so how much sensation could condoms block?

At the time, I worked in family planning in San Francisco at the nation’s first birth control clinic for men. We gave away thousands of condoms. And we did our best to bury the shower-in-a-raincoat myth. I used to lead birth control workshops at high schools and colleges, and I recall telling the young men, Imagine you’re at the movies and your girlfriend places her hand between your legs and starts fondling. Then she unbuckles your belt. And reaches inside…. Wouldn’t you become aroused? But your pants, shirt, and underwear stand between you and her hand. That clothing is more than 1,000 times thicker than any condom. Really, how much sensation can condoms block?

In the early 1980s, AIDS arrived and suddenly sex could be fatal. “Safe sex” became a mantra and condom sales soared. By 2000, the raincoat metaphor had largely disappeared.

But as condoms became widely accepted, research interest waned. The recent study shows that men’s attitudes toward condoms have less to do with the devices, per se, than with how men feel about the sex they’re having.

What Today’s Men Think of Condoms

Using the Internet, Indiana University researchers offered men over 18 a dozen free condoms plus instruction about proper use if they kept 30-day sex diaries. A diverse group of 1,875 men signed up and reported intercourse 8,876 times (an average of 4.7 times during the test month) with 5,249 sexual interludes involving condoms used properly.

Some of the men said condoms impaired pleasure. By and large, they:

• Were young and sexually inexperienced.

• Felt insecure about their erections.

• And had partners who complained of discomfort during sex.

Other participants said condoms caused no loss of pleasure. They:

• Were older and more sexually experienced.

• Received penis fondling and stroking from the lover.

• Received oral sex.

• Performed oral sex on the lover.

• Felt okay about their erections.

• Enjoyed the duration of intercourse.

• Enjoyed the intensity of intercourse.

• And ejaculated while wearing the condom.

In other words, sexually unsophisticated men who experience sex problems may blame their difficulties on condoms. But older, more experienced lovers whose sex includes what most lovers want—mutual erotic massage, mutual oral sex, and passionate, extended intercourse—have no complaints about condoms.

Like showering with a ring on one finger.

Have you used condoms? Do you think they affect sexual quality?

References:

Choi, K.H. “What Heterosxual Men Believe About Condoms,” New England Journal of Medicine (1994) 331:406.

Graham C.A. et al. “Incomplete Use of Condoms: The Importance of Sexual Arousal,” AIDS and Behavior (2011) 15:1328.

Hensel, D.J. et al. “Sexual Pleasure During Condom-Protected Vaginal Sex Among Heterosexual Men,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2012) 9:1272.

Khan, S.I. et al. “Safer Sex or Pleasurable Sex? Rethinking Condom Use in the AIDS Era,” Sexual Health (2004) 1:217.

Randolph, M.E. et al. “Sexual Pleasure and Condom Use,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2007) 36:844.

Yarber, W.L. et al. “Correlates of Putting Condoms On After Sex Has Begun and of Removing Them Before Sex Ends: A Study of Men Attending an Urban STD Clinic,” American Journal of Men’s Health (2007) 1:190. 

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