The Future of Safe Sex

Beyond the condom.

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Feb 17 2015, 4:00pm

Image: Lia Kantrowitz

I'm having sex on a bed floating over a dance floor. Below, the people dancing have become a single pulsating mass. All around me, are other beds, joined together by a narrow walkway, and through the electric fuchsia light, I can see bodies arching and thrusting, mouths open in moans that are impossible to hear over the music.

When another couple collapses into our bed, I realize I've never given any thought to how one establishes consent when the music is this loud. The intruders roll our way and our bodies meet them in a brief collision. They're having sex right beside us — I can feel their rhythm, I can smell their sweat. Our four bodies sync in parallel. When her head turns toward me and her eyes hold mine, I recognize the invitation. It's exhilarating. But the impulse to reach out remains an impulse. How do you communicate safety protocols when you can't hear one another?

It's difficult to explain to a Millennial what it's like to grow up with warnings on the television about AIDS and a sex-ed curriculum focused solely on the many ways sex will certainly kill you, but I no longer have to. Last year, the World Health Organization released its first global report on antibiotic resistance, revealing we're losing our last resort in the battle against gonorrhea. Antibiotic resistance—the threat of the future—is here, and sex is one of the battlegrounds.

"You should popularize the bunny suit for sexual encounters," my partner jokes later when we step out into the cold San Francisco night.

Sex in a suit designed to limit contamination only sounds ridiculous until you remember how long the latex catsuit has been an object of sexual interest.

It's creased and feels like a sad, deflated birthday balloon

The Scroguard inspires very little in terms of sexual interest. But that may be more of a feature than a bug. Wearing a rubber suit is an art, after all. And when you're having sex, the last thing you want to worry about is whether you're damaging art. The Scroguard, which has been bashed as the latex equivalent of the hole in the sheet, is basically a thong with an opening in the front for the penis. Paired with a condom, its purpose is to protect the entire genital area from what the HBO show Girls calls the "stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms."

The Scroguard's silver package is more reminiscent of a snack food than of the prophylactic of the future. When I remove it, it's creased and feels like a sad, deflated birthday balloon. My partner looks at it with suspicion.

"Why is it this color?" he asks. "It's totally triggering my uncanny valley."

The Scroguard is a few shades off his skin tone, with a slight hint of jaundice. It could really benefit from being just about any other color.

Like most humans, my partner has a fundamental objection to looking ridiculous. I remind him that we're doing this for science. I appeal to his fondness for lab safety. I cajole. I beg. I pull out a bunch of really exciting porn I still haven't had a chance to review.

Is this really the future of safer sex?

"Creative upgrades to barrier protection like the Scroguard, while ingenious and novel, will only catch on if they are easier and less awkward to use than the condom," says sex educator Reid Mihalko. "When you take into account human behavior around barrier protection use during sex, the future of safer sex will be nanotechnologies that enhance the experience."

He's not wrong. Of the 50 exploration grants awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the contraception category, 15 went to efforts to increase pleasure, enhance sensitivity, and increase heat conductivity—and many are applying nanotech, the manipulation of matter on the molecular level. A look over their proposals is like opening a window into the possibilities of the future.

One of these possibilities is a lot closer than we realize. Origami Condoms is expecting to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration this year. Named after the way it unfolds like the bellows of a view camera rather than unrolling, Origami Condoms are made out of stretchable silicone and do not fit snugly, which enables them to reciprocate movement along the penis during sex. As an added bonus, silicone has no smell or taste, unlike many of the available prophylactic barriers.

Why is this so important? Over the past decade, advances in condom technology have mostly focused on developing materials which act like better versions of traditional latex. Latex condoms have thinned to 45 microns, and in 2007 we got Vytex, a natural latex with greatly-reduced levels of the proteins which trigger allergies. The purely synthetic world of condoms added polyisoprene to the existing polyurethane and polyethylene varieties, bringing condom thickness down to 20 microns. Together, these advances have managed to incrementally improve sensation while maintaining barrier efficacy and reliability. But as Silicon Valley knows, incremental improvement rarely gets you new customers—if you want widespread adoption, you need something new.

It's this newness that the majority of grant recipients were going for.

Hydrogels are basically water molecules held in a polymer matrix. The result is a material that is incredibly elastic, tough, and self-lubricating, which enables it to deliver drugs. It's much more skin-like than latex, and the key here will be to determine whether it effectively prevents transmission.

Superelastomers are a new class of highly stretchable and sturdy synthetic materials which may go far beyond all of the current synthetic materials we currently use in non-latex condoms. One of the most promising is poly(glycerol sebacate), better known as PGS, which was originally designed for repairing soft tissues and organs. Apart from being very biocompatible, it's biodegradable and made from renewable materials, giving it the green stamp of approval.

Superelastomers may be the key in developing an even thinner barrier than current polymers, and they have interesting thermal properties: one possibility is a warmth-activated elastic polymer which slightly contracts during sex, molding itself to the penis completely. Think Saran Wrap (which, by the way, is about 12.5 microns thick, a goal that may not be entirely out of the question with superelastomers).

Graphene is a two-dimensional form of carbon that is known for its strength, elasticity and ability to conduct electricity and heat. Isolated in 2004, graphene was first successfully used to create composite materials two years ago, the result of which proved to be 500 times stronger than its raw component. In a safer sex application, the graphene would be layered with barrier materials—much like Gore-Tex layers fabric and water barriers—to make a condom up to 100 times thinner than the best current condoms, far more impermeable, and incredibly strong.

If these graphene composite materials reach market, expect to see ads showing them being used to lift a car: "When you're stiffer than tungsten carbide, you need something stronger than diamond!" (And now you know why I don't work in advertising.)

But the future isn't simply filled with potential new materials. Nanotechnology stands to modify the materials we know into completely new experiences. For example, latex is incredibly hydrophobic and uniform across, but nanotexturing could replicate a less uniform texture, as well as trap a thin film of water over its surface. Not only would this make the condom feel more human, it could do a lot to reduce irritation caused by excess friction during longer-than-average encounters.

Imagine a condom that helps the user maintain an erection

For the most part, the excitement around nanotechnology seems centered on how to replicate what we know: human skin, human mucosal tissue, and so on. But there are a few innovators who are looking beyond. At least two of the grant recipients mentioned exploring delivery mechanisms for stimulants on the condoms themselves. One of the stimulants mentioned, glycosylated PROLI/nitric oxide is a substance that, when absorbed, releases nitric oxide into the system, stimulating blood flow for increased arousal during sex. Imagine a condom that helps the user maintain an erection and you're on the right track. Coating both sides would mean a real promise of pleasure for him and her. Hello, vasodilators!

Comingle.io's Firaz Peer and Andrew Quitmeyer are developing the prototype for the Electric Eel, a condom that has conductive leads embedded in it for small jolts of stimulation during sex. When the duo first introduced this idea last year, the response was mostly negative. But like the Origami and the researchers looking to infuse condoms with stimulants, the makers of the Electric Eel seem to understand that the safer sex of the future is about more than safety and functionality.

It's clear that we're beginning to step beyond what we're familiar with when it comes to safer sex, which is critical if we want to see more innovative products in this space. And these products matter; HIV may no longer be the inescapable death sentence it once was, but antibiotic resistance in STDs is a very real and impending threat of the future. We need to equip ourselves to face those risks, even if it means looking ridiculous in a latex thong until the demand catches up to the science.

This article is part of Bodies of the Future, a collaboration between Motherboard and LadyBits. Follow LadyBits on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Lia Kantrowitz