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Graphene condoms: super thin and tough, but is that enough to make people have safer sex?

The proposal of an ultra-thin condom made from graphene and latex brings design of the contraceptive into the 21st century. We have yet to see a prototype, but the developers at the University of Manchester…

Pick me! Condoms remain an unpopular choice of contraception. Frank Kovalchek

The proposal of an ultra-thin condom made from graphene and latex brings design of the contraceptive into the 21st century. We have yet to see a prototype, but the developers at the University of Manchester said the thinnest and strongest condom ever made would enhance sensation during sex, which they hope will encourage more condom use.

Graphene is a form of carbon that has been touted a “miracle material”, can be one-atom thick the strongest ever measured and a replacement for silicone. James Hone, an engineering professor from Columbia University, said it was so strong that “it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap [cling film]”.

The plan at Manchester is to combine graphene with latex, currently the main material used in making condoms, to make their own. But will enhancing sensation really make people use condoms more?

Finding the right fit

Despite condoms being one of the best ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia and HIV, they’re still unpopular for a variety of reasons.

There has been a lot of research carried out into understanding how often condoms are being used, what problems are associated with using them and people’s attitudes towards them. An array of social and psychological factors influence how much we use condoms, such as loss of pleasure, the smell (commonly from latex) and arguments that they cause some men to lose their erection.

People tend to weigh up the perceived pros and cons of condoms and safer sex. There is a spectrum of condom use from people not using them at all, to using them inconsistently or attempting to use them and failing. And a growing body of research is telling us more about the errors and problems people have when using condoms – including fit, breakages and spillages.

Cops and rubbers

There have been many attempts to promote condom use across the globe. In Thailand for example, attempts were made throughout the 1980s to increase condom use to lower the country’s high birth rates and as part of an HIV prevention programme in the 1990s. The government worked with brothel owners to enforce condom use, there was a mass media campaign and police officers distributed condoms through something called the “cops and rubbers” initiative.

Thailand’s ‘Mr Condom’ at TEDx

Despite some success, problems remain with condom use still low in rural areas especially. This points to a lack of awareness and availability of condoms as a reason for low usage. But even in the West where condoms are widely available and sexual education programmes raise awareness, high rates of STIs persist. So is it really always about a lack of availability?

Condoms for the unclean?

A review of 268 qualitative studies in The Lancet found seven key themes reported by young people about unsafe sex, including that they were stigmatising or indicated a lack of trust. Another was in the perception of potential sexual partners as “clean” or “unclean” – so if a partner was deemed the former it was OK not to use a condom. Other social expectations, such as the fear of appearing “easy” or not also came into play.

Given social reasons influence sexual behaviour, new technology such as the graphene condom (and another idea exploring “shape memory”) won’t necessarily improve attitudes toward using condoms. It’s clear there’s still some way to go here.

But emphasising pleasure could be a new narrative that encourages some to weigh up the pros and cons a bit differently. For the most part, attempts to encourage young people to use condoms employ scare tactics that emphasise the consequences of not using them. But some of our research has found that young men actually reject these fear narratives and want a different tone in health communications. So a condom that emphasises “enhanced pleasure” could be effective for these groups. We are also looking into the attitudes of older adults towards condom use, as they remain sexually active.

The social and cultural forces at play that influence how young people act in the bedroom means merely providing information and condoms isn’t enough to bring about changes in sexual behaviour. While scientific advances in sexual health such as graphene condoms could be very important, getting people to wear them in the first place requires a deeper understanding of the social and cultural forces at work.