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A packet of three condoms with a picture of a virus cell and a spermatose inside a condom

In this age of HIV, condoms are all around us. They're stacked up in colourful piles in chemists, they're available from crusty vending machines in male toilets the world over, and they're an essential comedy tool in American High School movies. The condom is as much as part of the turn of the millennium as global warming and computer viruses.

But it hasn't always been so - the history of the condom is one with plenty of ups and downs, and even now the humble sheath is a source of mystery, ridicule or downright ignorance. This entry hopes to put a few facts on the table.

What is a Condom?

A condom is a latex, polyurethane or animal-gut sheath that fits over the penis and physically catches sperm, preventing it from entering the vagina1. Most condoms have a teat at the end to prevent the sudden arrival of millions of sperm from rupturing the condom, but not all condoms have them.

Condoms are also known as rubbers, rubber johnnies, sheaths and about four million other slang names. That's kids for you.

When you Should use a Condom

Condoms have two main functions, both of which can stop your life from turning into an unplanned nightmare:

No Kids

If you're more afraid of having a baby than you are of living another minute on God's blessed Earth, then you should use a condom, because the first use for condoms is in preventing pregnancy. Like all contraceptives, condoms are not perfect, but they do considerably reduce the likelihood of contracting a terminal case of parenthood. If you take 100 women whose partners use condoms and whose use is classed as 'typical' (in other words they don't always use condoms, or their use is not always correct), then over a year 12 of them will get pregnant. If you take 100 women whose partners whose condoms and whose use is 'perfect' (in other they always use a condom, and correctly too), then this drops to two pregnancies. In other words, condoms are between 88% and 98% effective.

To close the gap you can always combine condoms with another form of contraceptive. You can buy or get prescribed contraceptive creams, jellies, suppositories, films, foams and countless other gadgets to use alongside condoms, and your local doctor or family planning clinic will be only too pleased to advise you. Also keep an eye out for condoms with spermicidal lubrication - a popular spermicide is nonoxynol 9, which is the spermicide used in Durex condoms, for example.

No Diseases

The reason for the recent surge in popularity of condoms is that they also help to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), including the latest killer, HIV/AIDS. For this reason, if you're planning to have sex with a stranger, then you should use a condom, especially if either of you is in a high-risk HIV category.

Condoms protect against a whole army of nasty diseases, including gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia, chancroid, HIV, pelvic inflammatory disease and vaginitis, and they also offer a reasonable level of protection against the viruses that cause genital warts, genital herpes and hepatitus B.

Do note, however, that condoms made of animal gut do not protect against some diseases, as the viruses are small enough to pass through the membrane. For this reason you should not rely on them alone to prevent infection.

Use a condom. You know it makes sense.

Types of Condoms

The range of condoms can be mind-blowing to the uninitiated, but don't worry: for all the groovy names and trendy packets, the things inside the box are just condoms.

If you're worried about which condoms to buy, then use the most advanced knowledge base available to man: the Internet. Here is a very quick summary of the more common types of condom.

  • Standard - Straight-sided, or possibly slightly narrower at the open end to ensure a better grip on the penis, and normally with a teat at the end (though not always).

  • Thick - For anal intercourse, or for those who really, really don't want the condom to split. Thick condoms should conform to the international standard EN600 if you want a guarantee of quality.

  • Lubricated - Lubrication can be either spermicidal or non-spermicidal; some people react badly to spermicides, so if you develop a rash with spermicidal condoms, consider using one with non-spermicidal lubrication.

  • Ribbed - These condoms have raised ridges either along their length of at the base, supposedly for heightening the female's pleasure during lovemaking. This is a matter for debate, but it's fun doing the research.

  • Studded - Again, these condoms have raised blobs to make the female's life one of never-ending pleasure. No guarantees come with the packet, however, which might tell you something...

  • Coloured - Despite the condom being hidden for most of the sexual act, some people like the idea of a brightly-coloured penis. You can even buy glow-in-the-dark condoms, just so things don't get lost when the light's off.

  • Flavoured - Intended to make oral sex somewhat less rubbery for the person giving the blow job, flavoured condoms are to sex what bubble gum is to haute cuisine - interesting, but not necessarily that fulfilling. It's all a matter of taste, one supposes.

  • Plastic - Polyurethane condoms are now available that are thinner and therefore supposedly more sensitive. They're also good for those who are allergic to latex - about 5 to 7% of women and men.

And then there are condoms with antlers, condoms with faces printed on them, spring-loaded condoms2 and plenty of other condoms whose value is simply to make one laugh - never a bad idea, seeing as the whole point of sex is to have fun.

Do note, though, that not all novelty condoms are tested as rigorously as 'normal' ones. Check the packaging, and if in doubt, buy a well-known brand name.

How to Buy Condoms

The first rule of buying condoms is to chill out - whatever your paranoid mind tells you, that girl behind the counter isn't going to think 'Ha! He's buying condoms! How embarrassing!'. Instead she's probably thinking 'Wow, lucky bloke, he's buying a box of 12...'

The second rule is to do your homework. Unless you have the social constitution of an ox, you're unlikely to want to run up to an assistant to ask them which product is better, the ribbed or the extra-lubricated, so familiarise yourself with the information in this and other condom entries before buying. It will pay off, and you'll find that a lot of condoms come with a product brochure for you to explore at your leisure.

Third, grab the box you want and check the 'sell by' date. If it's expired - or it's going to expire before you have sex3 - then don't buy it.

Finally, buy it. If it helps, pretend it's a packet of toothpicks. Don't panic and say things like 'It's for my mum' or 'Er... do you have any cotton wool?' because this will only make matters worse. Hey! You're a Man! You're buying condoms so you can have sex! And lots of it! Yeah! Celebrate the fact!

Then go use them. All right! That wasn't too hard, was it?

Please note: if the exuberance of this section still can't convince you to buy condoms from a shop, then get shopping on-line. It's as easy as clicking your mouse button.

Quality Standards

The majority of condoms conform to the international standard ISO 4074, which is the minimum standard you should look for on the packaging before using a condom for protection. The more stringent European standard, EN600, applies to stronger condoms, and if you are intending to have anal sex you should check for this standard too.

The basics of the standards are that condoms must be sufficiently leak-proof and strong enough to withstand heavy use. Testing of condoms is done during the manufacturing process on random samples, where strength and leakage are tested. Those passing the test remain reliable for up to five years if stored correctly (in a cool, dark place).

How to Put on a Condom

Putting on a condom can be fun, or it can be drag: it's mostly a matter of attitude. If it helps, practice on a banana beforehand; it can be quite entertaining trying to purchase the correct-size banana in the supermarket with your girlfriend beforehand...

Here's a breakdown of condom use. This is a big list, but it's not as long a process as it sounds. After a bit of practice it'll be like second nature.

  1. Put the condom on before the penis touches the vulva. The penis leaks fluids both before and after ejaculation, which can carry enough sperm to cause pregnancy, as well as enough germs to transmit STDs.

  2. Tear along one side of the packet being sure not to rip the condom. Watch out for long fingernails, too, as these can rip the rubber. Carefully remove the condom, marvelling at the delightful feeling of lubricated latex. Yum!

  3. Air trapped inside a condom can cause it to break during sex4, so pinch the teat at the end of the condom and place the condom over the end of your erect penis, making sure the roll is on the outside (otherwise it'll be impossible to roll the condom down). If your penis is not erect, do not pass go and do not collect £200 - instead get back to whatever it is that normally makes you erect.

  4. Still squeezing the teat, roll the condom down over your penis, all the way to the bottom. It might snag, but don't worry: a bit of persuasion normally does the trick. Watch that you don't trap too many pubic hairs under the roll at the bottom, unless you're into masochistic sex.

  5. Go for it: as they say in magazines, this part of the entry is beyond the scope of this guide. However, do try to make sure the condom stays on throughout intercourse, otherwise it'll be no use at all. This is easier said than done, but you can easily slide your hand down to the base of your penis and feel for the rubber ring if you're concerned.

  6. When you've been to heaven and back - or got it over with, depending on your viewpoint - withdraw the penis before it goes soft, holding the base of the condom in place all the time; the last thing you need is to have to fish a sperm-filled condom out of the holiest of holies.

  7. When you're away from your partner, pull the condom off (preferably without decorating the apartment), wrap it in a tissue, and dispose of it thoughtfully (in a bin rather than down the toilet or on your neighbour's apple tree).

  8. Go and give your partner a cuddle. Nothing is worse than the man who finishes the job, rolls over, passes wind and slaps the TV on. Get sensitive. It's fun.

Oh, and one more thing. Never use a condom more than once. Unlike you, once they're spent, they're spent.

What should you do if a condom breaks on you? Well, the man should be able to feel it, but you can always break one during a private session with you and your loved one (your penis, that is) to feel what it's like in case it happens to you. The next step is to hoof it over to your doctor for advice - there are 'morning after' contraceptive pills that are far from pleasant, but which are a lot more enjoyable than a 20-year parental custodial sentence.

The Female Condom

Since 1977 there have been at least six patents awarded in the USA for a female condom, only one of which has made it to market. The condom, known as the Reality in the USA and the Femidom in the rest of the world, is made by the Chicago-based Female Health Company.

It's pretty difficult to find in shops and is expensive, but it's the first condom which gives the woman the power rather than the man, and that's as good a reason as any to give it a moralistic thumbs up. As with any medical device the female condom is most appropriately used under the supervision of a doctor and should be used in conjunction with both STD and pregnancy counseling.

Alternative Uses for Condoms

Although condoms are mainly used to save lives and prevent starting new ones, there are plenty of other uses for them. Here's a selection.

  • Water bombs - Condoms stretch incredibly, and filling them with water and tying up the open end creates a perfect water bomb, tailor-made for dropping out of windows on unsuspecting passers-by. We don't condone this behaviour as it's dangerous and juvenile, but that's only because we're no longer teenagers.

  • Water bottles - The same water-holding ability can be a life saver. Trekkers can carry condoms as light and effective water bottles, so when a water source is located water can be carried without the need to carry large, cumbersome bottles. It might be worth getting a non-lubricated, extra strong condom for this purpose.

  • Inspiring songs - For one of the wittiest condom songs ever to make the charts, check out 'House of Fun' by Madness. It's inspirational.

  • Party tricks - Some fools put condoms over their heads and inflate them to insane sizes, and some pass condoms through their noses in a celebration of personal freedom and expression. This is a pretty dumb way to impress your friends - far less impressive than getting laid - but that's humanity, folks.

  • Waterproofing - If you've got something you need to protect from water, a condom might just do the trick. They stretch to the size you require, are highly waterproof, are light, and can easily be double-bagged for extra protection. DIY enthusiasts love 'em!

1Or the anus or mouth... or any other orifice in which one might place one's penis.2Which, as far as this researcher could fathom, were simply condoms that looked like they'd been stretched and snapped back in a strange, ill-fitting shape, not unlike a melted candle. Spring-loaded was, it turned out, a marketing euphemism tour de force.3Hey, no need to worry too much about this. As males, we live in constant and optimistic hope that bears no relationship to reality, so why break the habit of a lifetime?4Air friction is the most common cause of condom breakages.

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