In the early 1980s, Hessel heard the Danish gynecologist Fritz Fuchs speak about the new scourge AIDS, and the barriers women faced in protecting themselves from infection. During the talk, Fuchs challenged Hessel to develop a female condom. That day, Hessel made the first prototype by cutting apart some hospital gloves and, with an iron, fusing the palm-covering areas together. The invention hit stores in Europe in 1990. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration finally approved the internal condom for domestic sales in 1993.
The product was heavily politicized from the start. One of the first mainstream publications to mention the internal condom, Forbes, didn’t paint a very flattering picture. Criticizing the FDA in 1993, Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer noted, “The same agency that holds up potentially useful drugs tends to become lax when politically fashionable products come before it. Thus the agency has responded to feminist pressure to approve the very failure-prone female condom.”
It’s peculiar that the FDA’s rigorous regulatory process was termed lax by certain media outlets, and that feminist support was seen as a drawback for a health product. But the internal condom was greeted with suspicion and dismissiveness in the United States—a country in the throes of a war over political correctness. In a demonstration of the internal condom played for laughs on his TV show, Rush Limbaugh suggested that the device was impossible to use. This mocking attitude would come to define media attitudes toward internal condoms for a long time.
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The heyday of the female condom was short-lived. A Google Ngram graph shows that in books, the term only came into semi-regular use in the mid-1980s. Its usage peaked in the late 1990s and has been declining steadily ever since. “Femidom”, which is not the name of an anarcha-feminist punk band but a synonym for a female condom, trails behind slightly, with its usage reaching an apex in 2003 but also falling precipitously immediately afterward.
The fact that “female” prefixes the product suggests that it is seen as a lesser, or at least less standard, version of a contraceptive mainstay. It is also a misnomer, as the “female” condom can be used during anal (male and female) as well as vaginal sex.
In the U.S. and Europe, the female condom continued to be seen as faddish and ineffective. Therefore, attention turned from consumer markets to international development. In 2002, the Female Health Company won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, an honor recognizing U.K. companies’ achievements. The award was conferred not in the sustainable development or innovation category, but as part of the international trade category, reinforcing the idea that the female condom had largely become a developing-world export.
The Female Health Company holds patents for the most widespread form of the internal condom, the FC2, which is the only form of the internal condom approved by the FDA. This may change in the future, as the National Female Condom Coalition in the U.S. is advocating for an FDA reclassification of the female condom into the same category as the male condom. This would allow more entrants into the market. In the U.S., the bulk of the Female Health Company’s sales go to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Brazilian and South African health ministries, and the UN.