When I first heard about the female condom, I thought it was a great idea. Like many women approaching 30, I do not consider the Pill, with its ominous circulatory side-effects, to be an option any more. The diaphragm filled with nasty-smelling spermicidal cream is too messy. The IUD seems, frankly, quite barbaric - I'm sure I wouldn't dare sit down, let alone have sex with one of those inside me - and my partner has never been exactly enthusiastic about wearing a condom.
So it was with this in mind that I found myself in Boots asking the lady behind the counter for Femidom, which arrived in the chemists' shops last week. 'Excuse me. Do you sell the female condom?' I asked loudly, looking her straight in the eye, refusing to succumb to what I have to admit was faint embarrassment.
'Have we got any Femidom left?' she bellowed to a colleague right the other side of the shop, who promptly came rushing over waving a box the size of a family pack of Licorice Allsorts in the air and plonking it down in front of me on the counter. This was a far cry from the discreet pocket-sized packet I'd been expecting.
'I only want to try it,' I said. 'Can't I start off with just a couple?'
'They only come in boxes of three,' she explained.
Femidoms were bigger than I had thought and at pounds 3.95 a pack they are not cheap either, more then twice the price of the standard 'male' condom.
'You're lucky,' she said. 'There's only one box left. And we only got them in today.' (I was sure I could detect just the hint of a lascivious grin.)
When I got home and told my partner about the assignment, he was thrilled to bits, and, wasting no time, tore off his clothes and leapt into bed. 'Well?' he said, looking at me expectantly, 'Go on then.'
I disappeared into the bathroom. It was only dignified to insert the condom, for the first time at least, in private. Call me old-fashioned, but I have never much subscribed to the putting-on-a-condom-as-an- intimate-part-of-foreplay theory. There is something intrinsically slapstick about barrier methods of contraception, male or female, and in my opinion condoms should be put on as quickly and discreetly as possible.
Safely in the confines of the bathroom, I tore open one of the three individually wrapped condoms (they come in packs a bit like the ones hotels wrap shower caps in) and there it was in all its glory, the first new method of contraception to be introduced on the market for years.
There is no easy way to describe Femidom. I have heard it compared to a plastic bag, a freezer bag, a jellyfish, a rubber glove, a landing net, a weather balloon, a crisp packet, a concertina, even a Chinese dragon, but none of these really do it justice. To me, Femidom, at about seven inches long and three inches wide, 'a loose-fitting, prelubricated polyurethane (yes, that is the stuff you varnish floorboards with) sheath', with a small rubber ring at one end and a bigger rubber ring at the other, looked like a cross between a Hoover bag and some weird species of pond life, an amoeba perhaps. An extremely scary, large amoeba.
I saw immediately that this was not going to be as simple as I'd thought.
My partner, meanwhile, realising that it was better to keep well out of my way, was busying himself changing the message on our Ansaphone.
'We can't come to the phone right now. We're testing the female condom. So we're practising, OK?'
The manufacturers claim that Femidom is as quick to insert as a tampon. Frankly, the instructions inside the box (copious diagrams included) seemed about as easy to follow as one of the more difficult constructions in The Krypton Factor.
'Squeeze the lower half of the inner ring between your thumb, index and middle fingers. This will give you a confident grip and narrows the inner ring to ease insertion,' read the instructions.
I squeezed the inner ring as I was told but Femidom, covered in colourless lubricant, slipped out of my grasp and catapulted across the room, sticking to the shower curtains, its rubber-ring eyes staring at me menacingly.
Femidom clearly had a life of its own, like the Alien. And I was Sigourney Weaver, fighting for womankind - for independence, control - to subdue it.
About half an hour later, I unlocked the bathroom door and emerged, flushed and triumphant, in the bedroom, - 'like a frogman', my partner said - with three inches of plastic and a rubber ring the size of a CD dangling between my legs.
'This is quite normal so don't worry,' read the instructions.
'That's easy for you to say,' I thought, wishing that I had never got involved.
'I'm sorry,' he said, 'but that thing's about as erotic as a colostomy bag. I don't think I'm going to be able to do this.'
'But we've got to,' I pleaded, turning the light out. 'It's for the Independent.'
LOOKING back on it the next morning, I think that we both felt Femidom was not actually that bad, and that the female condom did have some things going for it.
Although the manufacturers of Femidom claim that, once inserted, 'neither you nor your partner should experience loss of sensitivity', my partner complained that, with Femidom, having sex was like 'bonking a bucket', adding that the rubber rings felt hard and uncomfortable. He conceded, however, that this might be because a new method of contraception takes some getting used to.
I, on the other hand, felt that both from the point of view of safety and sensitivity, Femidom was streets ahead of the male condom.
We both found the copious amounts of lubrication and the fact that there is a large bit of plastic dangling between the woman's legs a problem, but acknowledged that people had almost certainly been equally alarmed by the sight of the male condom when it was first introduced.
Femidom is also a lot stronger than the standard male condom. The manufacturers claim that their product has only a 0.1 per cent chance of bursting (it's a good thing, too - if Femidom were to burst, it would probably be the biggest balloon disaster since the Hindenburg.) Used properly (it is possible for the man to bypass the outer ring, so the woman should guide him into it), Femidom has an impressive 98 per cent success rate - the same as the male condom and the diaphragm.
Femidom is completely odourless, it does not smell or taste of rubber or spermicide like male condoms, and it is much easier and less hazardous to remove.
More important, having dealt in the past with men who refuse to wear a condom and knowing how unpleasant it is having to insist, I think most women would probably be happier, particularly when not in stable relationships, taking the responsibility for contraception and safer sex upon themselves. Femidom is the first female contraceptive that allows them to do so.
Who knows? Tonight I may open another pack out of choice.
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