My Kingdom for a Condom

When I was leaving for college, my mother (a Planned Parenthood volunteer) presented me with an impressive array of condoms: red, blue, yellow, white, plain, lubricated, ribbed - even some with special receptacle ends. "I want you to be careful," Mom said, "so don't be afraid to ask for more." At that moment, the future shone bright with potential. Through the miracle of stretchy compounds, I thought, uncomplicated passion and worry-free sex would now be mine. And then I used one. Whereupon, I discovered that a condom - like that other rubber appliance, the toilet plunger - although handy when you need it, is not always enjoyable to use.

So, I didn't - until the scary A-word hit the headlines. Suddenly, petrochemicals were supposed to be our friends and men responded the only way we knew how: yelling, complaining, and sulking. "Men are so selfish," a female friend remarked during one of my prophylactic rants. "You only think of your own pleasure." Not (entirely) true. What women don't realize is that the condom's interference with our craven sensory gratification is only part - albeit a big part - of the problem. The old "swimming with your socks on" analogy holds true, in more than one sense. When you jump into a pool wearing hosiery, not only do you decrease your synaptic stimulation - you feel like a fool.

Condoms undermine male dignity in a dazzling variety of ways. As my friend Eric puts it, "I feel like a virgin every time I hold one in my hand." Now, this is an experienced man speaking - a fellow who collects one night stands the way couches collect spare change. "You finally get some moves down," he says, "make the woman feel comfortable and all, when suddenly you have to stop everything and deal with this vacuum-sealed packet. You're trying to rip it open with your fingers, your teeth - Fort Knox is more accessible."

Once a man actually conquers the packaging, he's faced with an even more daunting task: putting the thing on. Which way does it unroll? Donning a wet suit would be easier, but few of us put on wet suits in the dark next to an amorous woman (unless, of course, she asks us to). Thus, we usually end up rolling it on backward and inside out, tossing it aside, and fumbling for another. They come in twelve-packs for a reason.

Fortunately, the condom box carries detailed directions. Unfortunately, these instructions can be a stronger prophylactic than the rubbers themselves. The step-by-step illustrations are far too anatomically correct; they make sex seem so clinical. Alarmist warnings abound, such as the underlined command to be fully sheathed before foreplay, before penis gets anywhere near any opening! So dies our dream of the perfect ear job.

At stake, of course, is the fragile erection - so young, so eager, so doomed. In comparison, fruit flies enjoy longer longevity. The erection battles tirelessly against gravity and various Freudian trouble spots to get to a safe and sustaining haven, only to be picked up by the scruff of the neck right at the door. It deserves to be saluted, but instead it gets shrink-wrapped. As for the actual sex, well, as my officemate Max says, "Having intercourse while wearing a thick, sturdy condom doesn't feel like sex at all. It's like watching someone else doing it with your girl." Although the "ultrathin" variety promises better "feel and sensitivity," Max speaks for many of us when he says he doesn't trust them: "They're only one atom thick, and that's not good enough for me. Sperm are robust little things. They want to go places."

Furthermore, while condoms do eliminate the "wet spot," they also provide durable, and in most cases, unwanted physical evidence. My old roommate in Chicago, a blue-Trojan man as long as I've known him, once brought a girlfriend home to meet his parents. The visit was going nicely until his beloved old cat trotted through the dining room, just before dessert, carrying a rubber loaded with the evidence of the previous night's amour.

Nevertheless, we continue to go through the ritual in order to quell our fears. (A writer friend lists them as "fear of infection, of disease, and worse, of producing something that looks like me.") For all the trouble we go to, we should at least earn a little peace of mind, but how do we remain sanguine when we learn that a wallet can retain too much heat to be a safe storage site? That oil, even innocent talcum powder, can cause erosion? Some wrappers advise, "If condom breaks and semen spills or leaks, don't panic." What? Condoms are all about panic.

Not necessarily a bad thing either. Thanks to panic, we take sex more seriously. Sure we occasionally fantasize about the decadent, precondomania seventies, when a man could get lucky even if he was wearing a leisure suit, but we don't really want those days back. We're starting to embrace the new logic, to fondly regard our penises as little Shrines - naked without the fez.

You ladies can make things easier by recognizing that the condom you behold is, yes, a gooey shred of latex reeking of sperm, but more than that, a testament to the sacrifice we're willing to make for love. Join us in making that sacrifice a more comfortable one, won't you? Buy us brands that you find particularly appealing. If you pretend to like them, we, too, will be more predisposed toward them. Take extra steps to keep Mr. Happy from becoming Mr. Droopy. Act startled that the condom's big enough to fit. If you want, help us put it on (careful with those nails). Humor us, and maybe men's technical and emotional gripes with our little rubber friends will vanish, and we'll be left with nothing but passion between us. Nothing major, anyway.