If you’ve ever used a condom before (which, if you have ever had sex with someone who has a penis, you definitely should have), you will know that, a lot of the time, they aren’t exactly the sexiest things in the world. There’s the smell. The weird texture. The shiny packaging that has about as much subtlety as all the guys in your sex ed class during the day you had to learn how to put a condom on a banana. (Which is to say: No subtlety at all.)
Of course, you probably know on an intellectual level that it shouldn’t really matter how sexy or un-sexy your condoms are. The important thing is to use them to help prevent pregnancy and STIs. Period. Still, if the condom itself feels as though it wasn’t really made with you in mind, and using it isn’t a pleasant experience, it can be hard to muster up enough confidence to ask your partner to use one during sex, let alone to buy them for yourself.
But one new condom brand–XOXO condoms by Trojan–is looking to change that. The condoms are infused with aloe, so they feel great and are free of the typical (gross) condom scent, and have sleek, attractive packaging that’s a bit more, ahem, discreet than most condoms, so it feels less awkward to buy them for yourself. Earlier this month, I was able to attend a panel on safe sex and sexual confidence that marked the launch of the brand.
While I was there, I spoke with Alba Alvarado, a safe sex advocate who implemented condom machines at her high school in San Rafael, California when she was a senior, and is now a student at Wesleyan University. So, check out the conversation I had with Alba on condoms, their importance, and how to make using them feel sexier. (It can be done!)
What prompted you to start your safe sex advocacy?
I grew up in San Rafael California. It’s like twenty minutes north of San Francisco, so it’s the Bay Area and it’s a predominantly Latinx community. The majority are Evangelical Christian and under the poverty line with under-performing high schools, [it’s an] underrepresented community. When I was nine, my older brother became a father during his senior year at the same high school that I would later attend, so that’s when teen pregnancy first hit me. I saw the toll that had on my brother and girlfriend, emotionally and financially, it was just draining for my family and for them. So, I got to high school, and by the time I was a sophomore, I saw a lot of my friends become mothers and fathers. Most of them don’t come back to finish their education. The school doesn’t keep track of these girls because they don’t want those numbers in their reports or anything, so they kind of just disappear. So it’s definitely something that the school district was sweeping under the rug.
Going into my senior year, I was part of Next Generation Scholars, which is a college access program for first generation, low income students. They have us do an optional community uplift projects, so they basically have you look at your community and say, “what do I want to change?”
At first, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my community. [Teenage pregnancy] is so normalized that I didn’t even realize at first that it was something that I could change, but after brainstorming we decided that I would try to get condom dispensers put into the bathrooms of my high school and start up a condom accessibility program by myself. It took about a year and a half doing independent research online, going to local youth centers and Planned Parenthood, and doing school-wide surveys. I began carrying condoms around with me in my backpack, so they started calling me the “Human Condom Machine.” So, basically, it was seeing everything that was going on in my community that prompted me to take it to my school. It was cool to see that, as a community, we were able to create change, since now we have a condom machine in the female and male bathroom. Trojan actually donated 20,000 condoms to my school, which really helped to normalize the [protection] conversation on campus.
If you’re new to having sex, how do you become more confident when it comes to protection?
That’s such a scary thing, because it takes more confidence and bravery than you would think [to use protection], especially when you come from a situation like mine, a super traditional, religious community. When a woman begins talking about these things, you can be ridiculed and shunned for it, so it’s a very scary thing. You have to be brave. But I would encourage other women, and men, and everyone, to become strong supporters of each other, because as soon as one person can start talking about it, that prompts a larger conversation about a healthy sex life using condoms. Like, telling my partner “”No, I don’t like that,” or “Yes, I love that,” those kinds of things, can help a safe, communicative sex life become the norm.
Also, it’s your body. Like, you brush your teeth every day because you’re not trying to get cavities. Sexual health should be as taken care of as well as dental health. You’re just trying to take care of your body. You’re not trying to get STIs, you’re not trying to become a father or a mother when you’re in high school. So, if we can provide sex education inside and outside of classrooms and teach people that you’re just taking care of yourself [by using condoms], then I think the confidence will just come with it.
A lot of people see their sex lives change pretty dramatically when they go to college. How has your perspective on safe sex changed since your first year of college?
Within my own relationships [my perspective on safe sex] has definitely grown. Talking to my friends, I’ve seen their sex lives grow, so I’ve seen how you become more mature in college. The conversations are much different [than what I had in high school]. Still, even in college, I’m shocked by how many young women have never masturbated, never explored their own bodies, and never seen a condom in real life. Some of them don’t even know how sex works. I think that shock factor is something I wasn’t expecting in college, mostly because college students seem so mature until you get there. Even at a liberal campus [like Wesleyan] I was surprised. I don’t see as many teen mothers on campus because abortion and birth control are more accessible and, as you can see, it helps things.
Do you have any advice for making condoms sexier?
I don’t know! I have a boyfriend, and I think he knew who he was dealing with when we first started dating. For me, [using protection] was more of using humor within our sex life. I tell my friends to make it funny, not make it awkward, which in terms of relationships is pretty easy. But I know that hookup culture doesn’t allow for that kind of communication as much.
Really, I don’t think it’s about making things more sexy, I think it’s about just “Put it on so we can get to it, you know?” That’s the sexiest part. [By using condoms] you’re not going to become a mom or get an STI. I think that’s pretty sexy.
What do you think of this advice? Do you think this changes your perception of condom use? Let us know in the comments!