Condoms Have Men Covered in More Ways Than One
Let's get one thing out of the way: The 30 seconds of discomfort you experience when buying condoms are significantly less traumatic than the potential repercussions of not using them.
Interestingly, we've known this for thousands—literally thousands—of years. Historians and scholars have traced the condom's origins all the way back to 3000 B.C.E., to King Minos of Crete, the ruler of Knossos who is perhaps best known for his role in the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. As the flowery language of myth cites, Minos had "serpents and scorpions" in his semen, leading to the death of his mistress after intercourse.
More likely, unless Minos had been subjected to some truly wild and horrid circumstances, this was a metaphor for some form of sexually transmitted infection (STI).
In order to protect the king and his partners, Minos' subject Prokris crafted a sheath from the bladder of a goat, which the king wore during intercourse.
Even outside the realm of myth, though, we have evidence of some form of genital sheath existing during antiquity in Egypt, Rome, Japan and China, and among the people of the Djukas tribe of New Guinea.
Sometimes, these archaic condoms were made of linen or silk. Other times, they were crafted from plants, shells or animal intestines.
Regardless of the exact methodology, it is well established that throughout history we have known to wrap it up.
Why condoms are effective contraceptives
Despite their wide availability and low cost, condoms are not the most common method of birth control. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), condoms come in fourth behind female sterilization, oral contraceptive pills and long-acting reversible contraceptives. Additionally, while 65 percent of women are on some form of birth control, condom use has seen a steady decline in recent years.
No form of birth control is 100 percent effective, but condoms are right near the top.
"The failure rate for a couple using a condom is 13 out of 100, but keep in mind that the failure rate for withdrawal, or pulling out, is 20 out of 100," said Nannan Thirumavalavan, M.D., chief of male reproductive and sexual health for University Hospitals in Cleveland. "Even a vasectomy still has a failure rate of 0.15 out of 100, and the use of spermicide on its own—a gel used to kill sperm—fails to prevent pregnancy 28 out of 100 times."
In other words, outside of a vasectomy, condoms are the most effective contraceptive for men.
The reason is much simpler than you might imagine: The sperm simply can't get through. Thirumavalavan explained that many condom manufacturers also coat their condoms in spermicidal lube, which adds additional contraceptive efficacy.
How condoms prevent disease
Condoms are effective at preventing a variety of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but it's important to know which ones and how condoms work to prevent them.
"Condoms work to prevent STIs by placing a barrier between you and your partner's genitals, protecting you from contact with body fluids and limiting skin-to-skin contact that can spread sexually transmitted infections," said Julia Bennett, the director of digital education and learning strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Today, most condoms are latex, an effective material because of its flexibility and resilience. But other materials are also used, including polyurethane, a type of plastic; polyisoprene, a synthetic rubber; and an interesting carryover from the condom's roots: lambskin.
"Keep in mind that only synthetic condoms prevent the spread of STIs," Bennett added. "Condoms made of lambskin or other animal membranes do not protect against STIs; they only help prevent pregnancy. Lambskin condoms do not protect against STIs because there are tiny holes in the lambskin that are small enough to block sperm but big enough to let bacteria and viruses through."
Bennett also identified a case for the use of condoms that might not occur to many couples: on sex toys. While skin-to-skin contact is a common way for diseases to spread, viruses can also survive on surfaces and be transmitted between partners sharing a sex toy.
STIs/STDs and other conditions condoms can prevent
The prevention of STIs/STDs is obviously a top reason to use a condom during sexual activity, but other conditions people want to protect themselves from don't necessarily fall into that category. Even STIs/STDs fall into different classifications.
For example, gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis are transmitted by genital secretions that carry organisms from one partner to the other: bacteria in the case of gonorrhea and chlamydia, and a parasite in the case of trichomoniasis. A synthetic condom acting as a barrier is often impermeable enough to prevent organisms from transferring.
Conditions such as syphilis, genital herpes and chancroid operate differently. They typically appear as ulcers on the surface of the skin or, deceptively, as infected skin that appears normal. According to the CDC, the most common STI is human papillomavirus (HPV), and it can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or contact with mucosal secretions. In many of these cases, the efficacy of condoms in preventing the spread is dependent on the size of the ulcer and whether it is in an area the condom would actually cover.
While these might be the most common infections people try to avoid, several others can be prevented with effective condom use. Prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate gland, can have a number of causes, but one of them is the development of an infection as a result of unprotected sex.
'Essentially, condoms are effective for the simple fact that they provide an impermeable yet thin and flexible barrier between your private parts and someone else's.'
Similarly, balanitis, a swelling or an inflammation of the tip of the penis or foreskin, can occur as the result of irritants such as chemicals, skin conditions and poor hygiene. But it could also develop due to an infection that works its way into the head of the penis. The development of epididymitis, an inflammation of the tube at the back of each testicle that stores sperm, follows a similar thread.
Essentially, condoms are effective for the simple fact that they provide an impermeable yet thin and flexible barrier between your private parts and someone else's.
Sure, people can whine that sex with a condom "doesn't feel as good," or that they're "really good at pulling out," but keep in mind the human race has known for thousands of years that sheathing your sword can help to avoid situations far more uncomfortable than wearing a condom.
At the end of the day, you should be thankful we can use latex and not a goat's bladder.