'Sexpert' Promotes Female Condom
When Zoe Lehman talks about the newest version of the female condom, she's equal parts women's health care advocate ("It's an incredible prevention tool that empowers women") and sex therapist ("we tell women the double rings are amazingly pleasurable").

After listening to her, you begin to wonder whether the only thing this newfangled condom 212; which is shaped like the blossoming end of a tuba; can't do is toot its own horn.

Lehman, 23, is the support services coordinator at the Chicago Women's AIDS Project and a "sexpert." She knows full well the perils of unsafe sex practices. She works with HIV-infected women, many of whom contracted the virus from partners they didn't know had it. She has seen how the women's lives have been affected, in some cases devastated, by HIV and AIDS.

And here's a grim statistic: Cook County ranks first in the number of cases of gonorrhea and second in the number of chlamydia cases nationwide, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"We see the introduction of this new female condom as a way to inform women about taking their health into their own hands," said Lehman, a University of Chicago graduate who has worked with HIV/AIDS infected women in Africa.

"We've been letting everyone know how easy (the female condom) is to use. It's just as effective as the male condom, really pleasurable and … empowers a woman because she doesn't have to request that the male partner wears the condom."

Lehman's organization and a coalition of others — including the AIDS Foundation of Chicago — recently launched a campaign called "Put A Ring On It," to promote the latest version of the female condom, approved in March 2009 by the Food and Drug Administration. The condoms aren't yet widely available in drugstores but can be picked up at Chicago Public Health Department clinics around the city. (To learn more go to ringonit.org.)

Lehman said the Chicago Women's AIDS Project worked for about a year to get the FDA to approve the new version. It's more appealing than the old version that came out 15 years ago because the new one is made of a less expensive material, which makes it more affordable and, according to Lehman, is softer and feels more natural during sex.

She said one reason the first female condom flopped is because women didn't know how to use it. This time, instructions are on the package, unlike the old version, which had a large insert that unfolded like an unwieldy road map.

"One of the most exciting things about this campaign is that we, along with groups such as the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health, have spent the last two years training over a thousand people in the Chicago area who will train others on how to use it," she said.

I met Lehman at a training session at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School, where the teens got a quick lesson on the female anatomy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections before learning how to use the new condom.

Like the male condom, the female condom is a tube that's closed on one end and opened on the other. The female condom, which can be inserted before sex or up to 45 minutes prior, has a solid inner ring that rests around the cervix and anchors the female condom behind the pubic bone.

"It also has an outer ring that blossoms outside of the vagina, thus the campaign: ‘Put A Ring On It,'" Lehman explained to the students, who knew immediately that the slogan derives from singer Beyonce's hit, "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)."

The female condom is made for vaginal sex. But Lehman told me it's also popular for anal sex, even though it's not clear how effective male or female condoms are for this use.

Although gay men remain hardest hit by HIV and AIDS, and black women remain one of the fast-growing populations infected with HIV, divorced post-menopausal women over 55 increasingly are becoming victims.

"We try to sell them on how good the female condom feels, and that it's non-hormonal and super lubricated," she said.

No matter a woman's walk of life, Lehman stresses that the female condom helps place her in control of her own body.

"In the moment, if a woman has a condom on, is he really going to stop?" she said. "I wish for a world in which no one has to have any sex that's not wholly consensual and safe. But in this world, the reality is that's not yet the case, and the female condom gives women a foot in the door of negotiation."