Illustration by D. Thomas Magee
Illustration by D. Thomas Magee
I'm not proud of it. As someone who's at high risk for HIV infection, I have a spotty relationship with safe sex. I came of age in the '90s, when rappers like Salt-N-Pepa and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes frequently spit rhymes about rubbers. I volunteered in a South African AIDS orphanage in the early 2000s and saw first-hand the effects of unprotected sex. I even had my own close brush with HIV infection nearly 10 years ago. And yet, I don't always do the right thing.
NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.
So when LELO, the luxury sex toy manufacturer, invited me to see its big breakthrough in condom technology, I jumped at the chance. Weeks later I found myself sitting across the table from the company's founder, Filip Sedic, my hands covered in lube, attempting to tear apart perhaps the most ambitious prophylactic of our time.
Sedic strikes an imposing figure. He's tall, built like a brick wall and dressed in a purple velvet jacket with a silk ascot tied around his neck. He speaks passionately about STIs, contraception and pleasure in sometimes broken, though eloquent, English. He tells the story of HEX, a latex condom seven years in the making, the result of four years of radical R&D and three more overcoming regulatory hurdles. The final product, a high-design raincoat that takes design cues from the structure of graphene and suspension bridges, was born of frustration that shows on Sedic's face.
"It's a disgrace, that we in 2016, has STIs at all," Sedic says. "It's diseases that should be already disappeared hundreds of years ago. It's a verya big contradiction for me that we are living now with digital watches and robots and computers and virtual reality and everything ... and STIs. Come on, seriously. These things should not exist."
Eliminating STIs is a tall order, and one not likely to happen with a single leap forward in condom technology. The CDC estimates that there are more than 19.7 million new STIs in the United States each year, and 110 million sexually transmitted infections nationwide. But Sedic is optimistic that HEX will be "something people want to use, not have to use."
Sedic, a former product manager for mobile products at Ericsson, pinpoints the two biggest barriers to condom usage as he sees it: their tendency to break or slip (depending on how you're endowed) and the universal truth that they make the motion in the ocean less pleasurable, no matter the size of the boat. His assertions are backed by a 2008 Kinsey Institute study of men attending an STD clinic that focused on challenges to correct condom use. The study found that 30 percent of respondents "experienced problems with the fit or feel of the condom," 31 percent had a condom break and 28.1 percent lost erections during condom use.
Sedic says his team explored "hundreds of different crazy ideas" before landing on a redesigned latex condom. Among them, using "electromagnetic force to kind of keep liquids separated and away." While Sedic won't discount the wilder ideas, he says regulatory hurdles from multiple government agencies forced the team to think about more practical immediate solutions. The result is a latex condom that, aside from high-design packaging and a simple pattern, looks a lot like the condoms that occupy truck-stop vending machines.
It's a simple, interior hexagonal lattice, also found in the superstrong, ultralight wonder material graphene, that sets the HEX apart from its competitors. That pattern, in theory, not only makes the condom stronger, but centralizes breaks to a single, small hexagon, whereas tears in standard condoms are not contained. It also creates an internal friction that makes slippage less of an issue, according to Sedic. That lattice work also allows LELO to use extra-thin latex inside the individual hexagons, presumably creating a more pleasurable experience.
As Sedic stretched and poked at "the condom of the future" with his massive hands, I wondered if it's possible. Could something so simple really change the way I think of condoms? Will I one day WANT to wear a condom? And how am I going to get all this lube off my hands?
It's one thing to try and poke a hole in a condom with a rollerball during a press briefing; it's something else entirely to put one on and go to pound town. I've been sleeping with the same person for more than a few months and after a failed attempt at using condoms, we've had sex exclusively without them. I know his status and he knows mine. I'm also taking Truvada (aka PrEP), to reduce the risk of HIV infection, just in case.
But HIV is only one of many potential risks, and I'd prefer a solution that safeguards against as many as possible. I brought home a pack of 12 LELO HEX eager to find out how they stack up and gave them the old college try. Unfortunately, the condom of the future wasn't the safe sex silver bullet I was seeking. I'd prepped my partner Saturday night, telling him about the condoms before we hopped in bed, but in the heat of the moment, I failed to reach for the shiny white square sitting just inches from the lube on my nightstand.
The following morning, my brain clear and my deadline for this story looming, I asked him to slide one on before our 7 a.m. romp. He did, but it didn't stay on long. It didn't break or slide off, but the third piece of the puzzle just wasn't there. Like that 28 percent from the Kinsey study, things fell flat with the condom on. Of course sex without a barrier will always feel better than sex with one, but the HEX failed to deliver on its final promise for us. Pleasure is a tricky thing. What feels good to me may not feel good to you, and that's why a one-size-fits-all solution to eliminating STIs is such a difficult proposition. Had I not had the added protection of regular testing and Truvada, I'd like to think things would have ended differently, but reason and desire are strange bedfellows.
For HEX to succeed it will have to overcome a number of obstacles, not least of which is public perception. The company's enlisted a rather unusual celebrity spokesperson in Charlie Sheen, with the hope that his HIV diagnosis and subsequent endorsement of the product will persuade consumers to put aside preconceived notions of what a condom is. Even if it can tackle that hurdle, however, LELO will have to convince the world that it's worth the very steep price. LELO is offering the condoms at a discount for the first 10,000 customers via Indiegogo and its own site, but it will eventually charge close to $10 for a pack of three at retail. With the abundance of free and cheap prophylactics on the market, that's a high price to pay for what, to the naked eye, looks like just another rubber.