In recent years, HIV prevention measures have increasingly touted the use of female condoms as a viable means of contraception.However, these efforts will not be sustainable, nor will they have a significant public-health impact on reducing HIV, if these products aren’t available, explains Courtenay Cavanaugh, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden.
Exploring this issue in a high-risk area, Cavanaugh; Kaci Mial, her former student in the undergraduate psychology program at Rutgers–Camden; and David Tulloch, associate director at the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, conducted a study titled “Assessing the Availability of the Female Condom in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area.”
“Since female condoms are an effective method to prevent HIV when used consistently and correctly, in order to effectively prevent new cases of HIV, we need to focus on high-risk areas such as the Philadelphia metropolitan region,” says Mial, a Camden resident who graduated from Rutgers-Camden in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in women’s and gender studies.
In the first known study of its kind, the research project used geographic information systems (GIS) to map the availability of the female condom in relation to the male condom and HIV prevalence in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The researchers determined that only 1 percent of service providers in the study sold or provided the female condom, while 77 percent provided or sold the male condom.
According to the researchers, of the 1,228 service providers that were successfully contacted after three attempts during regular business hours, the majority were pharmacies (40.4 percent) followed in order by convenience stores, service stations, and health care facilities.
Of these service providers, 278 (22.6 percent) did not sell or provide either the female or male condom; 950 (77.3 percent) sold or provided only the male condom; and 16 (1.3 percent) sold or provided the female condom.
“The poor availability of the female condom shows a lack of commitment to the female condom as a serious HIV prevention method,” says Cavanaugh, who notes that, not only is the female condom difficult to find, it is significantly more expensive than the male condom and there is a complete lack of variety in types of the female condom as compared to the male condom.
Just as alarming, says Cavanaugh, is that 15 of the services that sold or provided the female condoms were health care facilities and only one was a pharmacy. Furthermore, they weren’t able to clarify the quantity that these services actually provide.
“As we noted in our paper, it is important for people to be able to access condoms from a variety of venues so access should not be restricted to health centers,” says Cavanaugh.
According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, all of these problems will collectively affect the uptake of female condoms. It is her hope that, ultimately, policymakers will work in the Philadelphia metropolitan area to increase the availability of this product.
“People need choices in terms of their HIV prevention options and one option that should be available to people is the female condom,” says Cavanaugh. “By increasing access, more people will have a choice about using this tool to prevent their contracting HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy.”
Mial, a first-year student in the master of education program in human sexuality studies at Widener University, is currently developing a proposal to expand the study to a national level. She maintains that researchers should consider intersectionality, privilege, and diversity when having dialogues about topics as important as disparities in HIV prevention.
“We know that patriarchy and gender expectations have negative effects on both men and women,” says Mial, a Pemberton native who earned an associate’s degree in psychology from Burlington County College. “Some women who have attempted to use the female condom have been at risk or have experienced physical violence from their partner. While we simply researched the availability of the female condom and discussed the public-health implications of this, my belief that there should be equal access to prevention and healthcare causes me to have further questions.”
The researchers also recommend conducting additional studies to assess how limited hours of operation for service providers affect the needs of consumers.