The research, to be conducted by the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre of City University, London, has been commissioned by a condom manufacturer. It will examine the breakage rate of standard and stronger condoms and establish whether thicker condoms are safer than ordinary ones.
The university says the tests will help to reduce the transmission of the HIV virus. Each couple will be given nine condoms of varying strengths and a report sheet which they will fill in and return to the university. The nature of these "blind trials" means that the identity of the manufacturer cannot be revealed until the results are published in September.
"This research explores an area with a large lack of knowledge," said a spokeswoman for City University. "Condoms are currently recommended for prevention of HIV transmission for gay men - it's important to evaluate their effectiveness to see if this is accurate. This is vigorous and relevant research rather than an academic exercise."
Gay groups and HIV health workers have welcomed the trials. "It's an excellent move," said Michael Carter, a spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust. "The easier you make it for people to have safer sex the better."
But the research has angered Baroness Knight of Collingtree, formerly the Conservative MP Jill Knight, who fears that individuals may be exploited by the project. "Students are a pretty impecunious bunch and may not be able to resist having pounds 40 dangled in front of them," she said. "Is it a proper function of a university to carry out research which involves recruiting and paying 600 homosexual males to have anal intercourse?"