Shape Discovers Condoms, Misunderstands Science

I just flipped through the April issue of Shape magazine, and came across this gobbet of enlightenment in the "Live Healthy News" section, on page 82:

The surprising secret to a sizzling love life

Want to have better sex? Skip the candles and sexy lingerie and pick up some condoms. A new study published in the journal Sexual Health found that women who used them along with a form of hormonal contraception, such as birth control pills, reported being more sexually satisfied.

Researchers say that may be because the women were able to stop worrying about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control mishaps, like missed pills or broken condoms, and focus on enjoying the moment. "It could also be that women who double up take better care of themselves, which has a positive effect on sexual health", says study author Jenny Higgins, Ph.D. So if you're not in a committed relationship, stash a box of condoms in your nightstand--and get set for some spicier sessions between the sheets.

The news item is accompanied by a photo of a man and a woman whose burnished and tangled caucasian legs (hers hairless; his blondly fuzzed) emerge from a pup tent, with the caption, "Be prepared: you never know when the mood will strike".

I'm not even sure where to begin, but the piece's breathless discovery that condoms are a good idea will do nicely. Granted, this is a magazine that offers such breakthrough advice as "tap excess powder off brush before sweeping on!" (p.70). But this "news" bit presents the idea that "those not in a committed relationship" should use condoms as revelatory, and that worries me. In the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1980s, even the nuns at my Catholic high school required that we learn to put condoms on cucumbers. But condom use appears to be leveling off at best. New HIV infections in the United States alone are also an even bigger problem than previously thought, according to the CDC. Has condom use among Shape's "key demographic of college-educated, socially and physically active women in their mid 30s" actually gone so out of style that it can be presented as radically new?

Shape also presents only part of the research. The article from the journal Sexual Health is behind a paywall, but here is the abstract (emphasis mine):

Background: Little is known about how condoms and other contraceptives influence women’s sexual enjoyment, which could shape use patterns.
Methods: Data from an online study of women’s sexual health and functioning were used to examine how three categories of contraceptive use – hormonal method only, condoms primarily, and dual use – could help predict decreased sexual pleasure associated with contraceptive method and overall sexual satisfaction in the past 4 weeks.
Results: In analyses controlling for age, relationship length, and other variables, male condoms were most strongly associated with decreased pleasure, whether used alone or in conjunction with hormonal methods. Women who used hormonal methods alone were least likely to report decreased pleasure, but they also had significantly lower overall scores of sexual satisfaction compared with the other two groups. Dual users, or women who used both condoms and a hormonal method, reported the highest sexual satisfaction scores.
Conclusions: Because male condoms were viewed by many of these women as decreasing sexual pleasure, sexual risk practices are likely to be affected. Although hormonal only users were highly unlikely to report decreased pleasure, they reported lower sexual satisfaction compared with the other two groups. Dual users, who had the highest sexual satisfaction scores, may have been the most sexually satisfied because they felt more fully protected against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmissible infections – consistent with previous qualitative documentation of ‘eroticising safety.’ This exploratory study suggests that different contraceptives affect sexuality in various ways, warranting further research into these sexual dimensions and how they influence contraceptive practices.

Keywords: contraception, hormonal methods, male condoms, sexual pleasure, sexual satisfaction.

Dr. Higgins, who researches "gender-sensitive HIV prevention efforts for heterosexual women and men", makes a distinction between sexual pleasure and sexual satisfaction. Shape, however, mentions only sexual satisfaction, but implies that satisfaction and pleasure are identical. Furthermore, the news piece's contention that using male condoms will lead to "spicier sessions between the sheets" contradicts Higgins' finding that women report decreased pleasure (though increased overall satisfaction) when using condoms.

Finally, the Shape author misunderstands Dr. Higgins' quote about "women who double up tak[ing] better care of themselves, which has a positive effect on sexual health". Shape implies that suddenly stashing some condoms will lead to better sex, while Higgins' point is that women who take good care of themselves to begin with have better overall sexual health, and that condom use is but one reflection of that self-care. So, whoever wrote the Live Healthy News piece is either utterly scientifically illiterate or hella* disingenuous.

*as we used to say in Marin County CA back in '88 (e.g. "damn, these cucumbers are hella slippery now, dude!")

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