The female condom is one of just two barrier methods that can protect against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies, yet many young adults are not aware of the device, a new study by two UT Arlington researchers has found.
They say the reason could lie in the way information about the female condom is communicated to young people.
Charla Markham Shaw, associate professor of communication, and Karishma Chatterjee, an assistant professor of communication studies in The University of Texas at Arlington College of Liberal Arts, co-authored the paper "Communicating Sexual Health Messages: Young Adults and the Female Condom," which appears online in a recent issue of Open Access Journal of Contraception.
To complete the latest research, same-sex peer educators conducted information sessions with 55 male and 94 female participants between the ages of 18 and 24 years old in same-sex small groups at a large southwestern U.S. university.
The researchers discovered that few of the college-age study participants had ever seen or used a female condom. After participating in the education sessions, most considered the female condom a viable technology in preventing sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 52 percent of the female participants said what they most liked about the female condom is its design. Protection, the most liked characteristic for men, ranked third for women.
"Teens and young college adults encounter many sexual health risks, so communicating meaningful and relevant information that connects with this demographic is critical," said Markham Shaw, who is also chair of UT Arlington's Department of Communication. "Both women and men must be considered when developing messages about the female condom, as partner acceptance is key in successful adoption of new sexual health technologies."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexually active teens and young adults account for nearly half of new sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. each year, despite constituting only 25 percent of the sexually active population. If these conditions are not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, the consequences are often worse for young women and may include pelvic inflammatory disease, pregnancy complications, abortion and infertility.
The more popular male condom helps protect women against infection and unplanned pregnancy, but the female condom is the only woman-initiated barrier method. During the presentation to study participants, peer educators introduced the female condom and discussed a variety of its features, such as ease of use, cost and effectiveness. They also discussed implications beyond sexual health, including sexual pleasure and latex allergies.
"Our aim was to learn about the characteristics of the female condom that are important to young college adults and to identify how they view the device as a method of protection against sexual diseases and unplanned pregnancy," Chatterjee said. "The findings suggest that design, lack of side effects, protection and convenience were important to the majority of college women."
While liking many design elements, the primary "dislikes" for both male and female respondents were also design elements - the female condom's size and appearance. Some participants noted its "large size" and disliked that there would be "less skin-to-skin contact."
"Men do not have to place the device on or in their bodies, so it makes sense that they would view protection as the most liked characteristic and elements of the design second," Markham Shaw said. "Women, however, were primarily focused on design elements in their responses suggesting that the features need to be highlighted in educational messaging about the benefits of the female condom."
While there is research focused on female condoms in the context of sex work and in the context of older sexually active adults, there has never been a study that looked at how college-age young adults view the female condom, Chatterjee noted.
The first female condom was introduced in the U.S. in 1993, but drew little interest due to several reasons including mixed or negative portrayals in the media, which Markham Shaw and Chatterjee examined in a 2012 published study. The Food and Drug Administration approved the second version of the female condom in 2009.
The researchers hope the findings will serve as communication recommendations for sexual health care providers and be used to guide future studies on college men and women across the U.S. In addition to components of message design, the results of their latest research suggest that health care providers should give clients opportunities for direct experience with the female condom as a new technology.