When people talk about safer sex, the conversation almost always revolves around the importance of condoms. Maybe your eighth grade health teacher made you stretch one over a ripe banana, or perhaps your mom slipped a box into your bedside drawer while moving you into your freshman dorm room. They hang out behind the counters of gas stations in modest three-packs — hopeful, expectant, and awkward as hell to ask for when there’s a line forming behind you. The point is, they’re everywhere and we’ve all heard of them.
But the external (or male) condoms that most people are familiar with aren’t the only ones out there. When it comes to barrier methods, there’s an unsung hero that I think deserves more love: the internal (or female) condom.
Sold under the brand name FC2, the internal condom can be used by receiving partners of any gender. Like their latex siblings, internal condoms create a barrier between your body and your partner’s body to help prevent pregnancy and STIs. Used perfectly every time, internal condoms are 95 percent effective at preventing pregnancy; when you account for human error, they’re 79 percent effective. (For comparison, the corresponding stats for external condoms are 98 percent and 82 percent — not much different.)
As the word ‘internal’ suggests, rather than going over a penis or toy, they go inside the person who wants to be penetrated. To use them as protection during vaginal sex, the receiving partner inserts the inner ring of the FC2, which feels a lot like a NuvaRing or a glow bracelet, into their body and guides it into place near their cervix. The middle part of the condom lines their vagina, while the outer ring hangs outside the body and covers the vulva, providing an extra layer of protection against STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact such as herpes and HPV.
Despite being associated with the word ‘female,’ the FC2 can also be used for protection during anal sex regardless of a person’s anatomy or gender identity. Before inserting it, some folks prefer to remove the inner ring of the condom (it slips out easily). It’s a matter of preference, but however you choose to use the internal condom during anal sex, be sure that the outer ring always stays outside the body. Otherwise, you’re in for one hell of an ER visit.
Although more obscure and strange-looking than their external counterparts, internal condoms have a number of perks. They are made of nitrile, which makes them a great alternative for people with latex allergies. For those who like to plan ahead, they can be inserted up to eight hours before sex. And unlike external condoms, where control over whether and how to wear one lies primarily with the partner doing the penetrating, internal condoms shift agency around practicing safer sex to the receiving partner.
All of that useful information aside, you probably really just want to know one thing: What’s it like to use one? Well, I tried it out just so I could report back my findings to all of you. You’re welcome.
Getting the internal condom into place wasn’t too much trouble for me, but I’m also a person who’s extremely comfortable with her own vagina. If getting up close and personal makes you squeamish, this may not be the method for you. But once it was in, I couldn’t feel it at all.
For this experiment, I recruited a longtime casual sex partner who agreed to give it a try for science. When he saw the floppy nitrile mouth hanging out of my body, though, it definitely gave him pause.
“You good?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “Uh, it just looks … really, really weird.”
But once we got over the initial shock, things were fine. I definitely recommend using a water-based lube with the internal condom to keep things moving along. With some Sliquid on board, I personally found the sensation to be far better than using an external condom — to be honest, it pretty much felt like we weren’t using protection at all — and my partner agreed. Post-ejaculation, the internal condom doesn’t need to be removed immediately to prevent spillage like an external condom, so it also made post-coital cuddling a little more relaxed.
It might take some getting used to, but for the right people internal condoms are a fantastic option for practicing safer sex that can prevent pregnancy and STIs without compromising on sensation. Wanna see for yourself? Here in Portland, you can get them free at Planned Parenthood or Frannie Peabody, as well as some drugstores and online. Folks with insurance can also ask for a prescription from their healthcare provider to receive them free from a pharmacy. Happy experimenting!
This piece originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix.