You’re having sex. Then your partner locks eyes on yours, and says those three magic words that stop time. “The condom broke.”
For many, a broken condom means the difference between a grade-Asession of Netflix and Chill and a nightmare evening that turns into an anxious waiting game.
Now Swedish intimacy company LELO is getting into the condom manufacturing business to prevent uncomfortable and unsafe situations like this from happening again. The 20-year-old company, dubbed the “Apple of the pleasure products industry,” has reinvented the rubber.
From across the room, the HEX condom looks pretty ordinary – an eggshell-colored piece of latex that unrolls into a phallic shape. But up close, it becomes apparent where the name comes from. A faint, hexagonal patterned honeycomb lattice is etched into the material.
This eye-catching design is part of a condom that is stronger, less likely to tear, and potentially more comfortable than a traditional condom.
For nearly 100 years, the condom – one of the most effective methods of protecting against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections – has been in desperate need of a makeover. While computers grew small enough to fit in our pockets and cars learned to drive, the latex condom has remained more or less unchanged since it was invented in the 1920s.
That’s a problem, because the rubber as we know it is an incredibly flawed medical device. It slips, it breaks, and it reduces sensitivity for male wearers.
Sitting in a conference room in San Francisco, founder Filip Sedic thrusts his hand inside the condom and fans his fingers. The latex clings and thins around the edges of his fingernails, but does not break. Sedic grabs a pen from the table and tries to puncture it again.
“People say, ‘I don’t use it because it might break.’ Give me a break,” Sedic says, shaking his head. “But people will still use that as an excuse. We have to make sure to eliminate all of these excuses.”
A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2007 surveyed ahundred college students about their sex lives over three months, and discovered men and women who rated unprotected sex as more pleasurable were less likely to use condoms.
More Americans are throwing the “no glove, no love” rule out the window. In the largest-ever nationwide study on sexuality in 2010, 45% of men and 63% of women reported not using a condom in their most recent sexual encounter with a “new acquaintance,” according to Indiana University. Such negligence can invite a host of complications, including disease.
Eight years ago, Sedic, an engineer by training, set out to do something radical: make a condom that men would actually want to use. Or at the very least, tolerate.
“It is kind of a shame that in 2016, we are still using a product that is more or less identical to what it was a hundred years ago,” Sedic says. “I believe that with today’s technology, we can do much better.”
Sedic and his team tried experimenting with new materials, including polyurethane, an incredibly strong polymer found in everything from wall insulation to sneaker soles. But in order to bring a new condom to market in the US, the FDA requires that it performs as well as latex. The approval process can take decades.
The team sidestepped these logistical challenges by sticking with latex and focusing on changing the structure on the condom instead.
“In the beginning, it kind of felt impossible because the condom is a pretty simple product by construction,” Sedic says. “But then suddenly, we had a breakthrough in thinking. The beauty of this idea is that it’s so simple.”
For decades, rubbers have been made by dipping a penis-shaped mold into a vat of liquid latex and peeling the material off when it dries. LELO reengineered the mold so it’s engraved with a honeycomb pattern. The manufacturer dunks the mold once into the plasticky mixture to fill the impressions, and twice to cover the rest of the mold. When it’s rolled off, the condom will appear darker (and actually, thicker) where the pattern was.
Sedic explains that when pressure is applied to the condom, it stretches in six directions from any point. This flexibility makes it more forgiving of tension. If you poke a hole in it, the damage stays contained in the single cell. It doesn’t shatter like traditional condoms.
Designers placed the hexagonal design on the inside, drawing inspiration from non-slip tires, to prevent slippage. The condom is just 54 millimeters thick, making it comparable in width to the Durex Extra Sensitive and the Trojan Ultra Thin Lubricated condoms.
I asked Sedic if this design made the HEX more effective against preventing pregnancy and STIs when breakage occurs, but he only offered anecdotal evidence to suggest it was.
Still, men won’t wear condoms if they expect them to be uncomfortable. The HEX aims to solve that issue as well.
Today, you browse the condom aisle of a drug store and find dozens of arbitrarily named variations that promise a “barely there,” “double ecstasy” feel for “extendedpremium” erections. It’s impossible to choose.
“Even if I had the money to buy all three [variations] and put them on top each other, I don’t think I’m going to achieve what I want,” Sedic jokes. “Why not make one thing … so you don’t need to make these choices? Why should I make these choices?”
Sedic calls the HEX the condom that can do it all.
The packaging consists of a plain white box with black lettering, in a postmodern style that’s very Apple. Though its dimensions are a giveaway of what’s inside, the HEX is a product I would hold confidently in line at CVS.
Such luxury does not come cheap. A pre-order on crowdfunding website Indiegogo prices the condoms at $9.90 for a 3-pack, $19.90 for a 12-pack, and $34.90 for a 36-pack. They’re also available online and later, in drug stores and pleasure product retailers.
For comparison, a 36-count box of Trojan Ultra Thin condoms runs $13 on Amazon.
The manufacturing process for the HEX makes it 2.5 times more costly than traditional condoms to produce, but Sedic credits the condom’s price tag to exclusivity, not operations.
“We believe that the biggest problem with condoms is, people don’t want to use them. So, we need to make them want to use them,” Sedic says, before breaking into a massive smile. “Usually, if something looks cool and is high-priced, people want to take it [sic].”
He doesn’t count Trojan and Durex, the two best-selling condom brands on Amazon, as LELO’s competitors. Instead, Sedic hopes the company’s innovation will inspire others to continue improving the condom.
“It’s not a matter of taste, yeah?” Sedric says. “It’s a matter of life and death – of protecting yourself or not.”