Condom contest hopes to combine pleasure and protection

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Most sexually active people are aware that using a condom is a good idea. They protect against sexually-transmitted infections (STI s), including HIV/A.I.D.S., as well as reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy. They come in many different varieties, including almost any flavor you could think of, ranging from banana split, to island punch or bubble gum. Condoms are found in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. They have even been made available in some public schools recently, such as those in Boston. However, only 5 percent of men worldwide use condoms, and this no doubt contributes mightily to the 2.5 million new H.I.V. infections each year.

While there are many possible reasons for the low level of condom use despite the obvious risks, there is one that is seemingly obvious: men don t like to wear condoms, because condoms impair, or are believed to impair, the intensity of sexual pleasure.

Researchers at The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are not taking this lying down. They have just finished collecting applications for the Grand Challenge, which aims to develop the next-generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure. The Gates contest will be awarding winners $100,000 this fall and up to $1 million subsequently.

The goal of the contest aims to do more than just make condoms more pleasurable for men. The Gates contest also addresses some other possible factors involved in the unacceptably low level of condom use, including the stigmas women face when carrying condoms. In attempting to deal with this issue, one applicant sent in discreet condom cases, completely stocked with condoms, breath mints and lubricant for women who are concerned about societal judgements.

While these solutions do little to actually change societal patterns, such as irresponsible sexual habits or shame placed on women, the practical approach could possibly make some positive changes for public health.

No one knows what innovations the applicants will come up with, but it s possible that the next big thing for sexual health is just around the corner.