A Dose of Reality

After years of gathering dust on drugstore shelves, the female condom may finally be on its way to finding acceptance among gay men and Third World women.

Tucked away among a long line of gray, pre-fab warehouses in an Arden Hills industrial park, Distribution Systems and Services does a tidy business handling packaging and shipping tasks for much larger corporations. Inside, in a room the size of an airplane hangar, sit scores of pallets filled with all kinds of merchandise. Among the pallets are hundreds of cases of Reality Female Condoms in their original retail packaging. Some of the boxes are dusty and show signs of age.

Three tables serve as a makeshift workstation for employees whose job it is to open the boxes and relabel them. One employee removes the computer-printed 1996 expiration date from the back of the individual condom packages with nail-polish remover. Another affixes a sticker bearing a new expiration date of 1999 to the packages, while a third counts the condoms and places them in shipping boxes.

For the thousands of relabeled Reality Female Condoms, DSS is just the first stop. The condoms, introduced to the U.S. market in 1993, didn't sell well. The Female Health Co., manufacturer of the Reality Female Condom, hasn't seen enough sales from its lone product to turn a profit for several years. Consequently, many of these repackaged condoms are slated for distribution to pharmacies and public health clinics throughout the world.

Kristine Heykants

Retailing for $2-$3 each, the Reality Female Condom looks like a rounded plastic bag secured on each end to a slightly more rigid plastic ring. The smaller ring on the closed end anchors the device against a woman's cervix much the same way a diaphragm does. The larger ring at the open end provides another anchor plus protection for the external genitalia. The 7-inch sheath is made of polyurethane, which makes it more expensive to manufacture than latex condoms, but less likely to cause an allergic reaction in users.

After an initial flurry of excitement, the condoms languished on store shelves, perhaps because of what sex columnist Dan Savage called the "yuck factor." Studies have shown that while women like the fact that they--and not their partners--control the method, they find the female condom cumbersome and too large, and complain that it "looks like a plastic bag." Indeed, when the FDA approved the product in 1993, agency Commissioner David Kessler admitted that Reality wasn't all he would have wished for, but was better than nothing at all.

The thousands upon thousands of stickers being applied to Female Health's resurrected surplus of Reality Female Condoms illustrate not only the difficulty and expense of bringing new forms of birth control to market, but also the struggle that must be fought by those same manufacturers to get the buying public's attention. The story is one of a well-intentioned idea--to give women a way to control their exposure to HIV and STDs--that didn't catch on.

Five years after its introduction, the female condom appears finally to have found its market: Straight women in the United States may not see Reality as a godsend, but women in AIDS-plagued Third World countries do, along with a growing number of gay men.

It was a Danish physician, Lasse Hessel, who invented the female condom in 1988. Hessel then sold manufacturing rights to the condom to a London company which, with the help of a Danish nonprofit, developed a production process and won permission to market the device in a number of countries, not including the United States. The first batch was sold in Switzerland in 1992.

Hessel sold the rights to make and sell the condom in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to Wisconsin Pharmacal Co., Inc. of Jackson, Wisconsin. The company, which previously had manufactured chemical products such as home cleaners and institutional health-care products, undertook the studies necessary for FDA approval. The device hit store shelves in the United States in 1994. Headlines touted Reality as the solution to women's need for a product they controlled that would offer protection from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Wisconsin Pharmacal decided to concentrate all of its efforts on marketing the condoms, so it sold off the consumer-chemical portion of its business, and, changing its name to the Female Health Co., moved its headquarters to Chicago. Female Health was so confident its product would catch on that it even bought the London company that earlier had developed the manufacturing process.

Sales, however, failed to take off. Studies would later show that few women were even willing to try the new method. Melissa Perry of the Medical College of Wisconsin's Center for AIDS Intervention Research gave women who lived in low-income housing developments in five U.S. cities free condoms and showed them how to use them. When the study began, 14 of the 200 women surveyed said they'd tried Reality. Two months later, only 25 women had tried the method.

Dr. Mary Ann Leeper, president of Female Health, concedes that she's disappointed American women haven't been quicker to accept the female condom. "But talking about [disease] prevention in the United States isn't an easy sell and sex is ever harder to discuss," says Leeper.

But while American women puzzled over what to make of the new birth-control method, its maker lost money. According to documents filed last month with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Female Health lost $5.6 million for the year ended September 30, 1997, bringing the company's cumulative deficit to $36.2 million. Total assets for the company equal just $4.9 million. The American Stock Exchange notified Female Health that because of its financial status, administrators were considering dropping it from the exchange.

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