Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Female Condom

The female condom could drastically change business on Espejo and Montufar Street in Quito’s historic center. A nurse came to give the sex workers a workshop on how the female condom works, how to insert it, etc. She came bouncing in with the lower half of a female’s anatomy. I must admit, I felt as intimidated as the other women by this newish product on the market, mostly because it’s so bulky—it looks like a narrow plastic bag with two circles, one open and the other closed, at each end. It’s about time the female condom arrived to Ecuador. As the sex workers watched the demonstration they took notes and whispered to one another about how it functions. They were eager to learn because as I said, the female condom could shift the entire game of sex work, in the women’s favor.

J. is one of the veteran prostitutes and has been using the female condom for a few years. She had already talked about it with the other women, praising its benefits. The principle advantage of the female condom is that it suddenly solves the conundrum that all sex workers find themselves in—they find themselves having to make a life or death decision in a split second based on their finances or their addictions. Many of the clients prefer to have sex with the sex workers without a condom (don’t ask me why), and are often willing to pay double the price to do so (10 instead of 5 dollars). Most of the women refuse the offer for obvious reasons, they want to stay safe, so they lose a lot of clients to women who are either in dire straits economically or who are unfortunately, drug addicts, desperate for their next hit.

J. explained that she’s been using the female condom for years because now she can accept all these clients who don’t want to use a condom. Once they are in the hotel room, J. excuses herself to the bathroom to insert the female condom, and apparently the client never knows the difference. He pays her double price and thinks he’s just had sex without a condom. It’s the perfect way to trick clients. The other women asked J. to confirm if she was absolutely certain the clients don’t feel the female condom during sex….obviously, if a client found out he was being duped, the prostitute would find herself in a very dangerous situation. Especially because he had just paid double to be with her. But what does it matter? He IS having sex without a male condom, and obviously that’s what makes the difference sensation-wise. The women have been thrilled to learn about this new method to squeeze more money out of their clients, while at the same time, staying safe.

Obviously the problem with male condoms is that during sex a woman has very little control over whether her partner will actually use it or not. Even though the sex workers insist on using condoms (a male condom and piece of toilet paper are included in the $3 bed-fee when the client pays the hotel), there are cases when her client refuses to put it on at the time of intercourse. That can lead to the sex worker losing money or, in the worst case, coercion or rape without a condom. It’s hard to believe that the female condom has only recently come into circulation. For women to have complete freedom over their sexual rights, they have needed a product like this one in order to be pro-active about their health. In the best cases, men will agree to use a condom, but often women (not just the sex workers, obviously), become convinced not to use one in the moment. Given these possibilities, I think it’s a huge step forward in women’s rights that we have our own condom we can use whether our partners agree to them or not. They don’t even have to know about it. So indeed, we’ve waited many years after the anti-contraceptive pill for the next step in women’s sexual freedom.

The only complaint about the female condom is that it’s a bit difficult to use. It’s best to attend a workshop to learn how to insert it correctly, although J. said she figured it out after a few times. (But one should really have it figured it out for the first time of use!) Also, in Ecuador it’s still expensive. I’m not sure even how much it costs in the U.S. but here it costs perhaps $2-3 dollars for one. That is a huge amount of money for sex workers in San Marcos because they only earn $5 per client for full service. At the moment, one of the sex workers is selling them for a dollar each, but that’s still triple what a condom costs. One can usually buy 3 male condoms for a dollar here. (just $.33 for each one). But hopefully, the women wouldn’t have to use the female condom every time, only with those select clients who truly insist on not using the male condom. The women were giddy after the workshop—eager to try out the female condom, a revolutionary product for them that will saves lives and help them earn a bit more money….perhaps until the word gets out.

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