Chicago Walgreens stores started carrying a new and improved female condom this spring, making it more accessible and helping sexual health advocates to push the product into the main stream.
Walgreens now keeps female condoms on its shelves in 400 stores nationwide, 20 of them in Chicago.
“We view the female condom as an alternative for women who want to take control over their own health and basically allowing them to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy as well as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases,” said Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffany Washington.
Last year, the Chicago Female Condom Campaign, a collection of HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, women’s health, and gay men’s health organizations, stepped up efforts to increasing access, awareness and use of female condoms.
The group has trained more than 300 educators and service providers to promote and educate community members about FC2, according to Jessica Terlikowski of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Though the female condom has been on the market for nearly 20 years, it’s not as widely used as other birth control and disease prevention methods.
FC2 is an improvement, according to community health advocates. Made from a nitrile polymer instead of latex, the material is said to be softer and conducts heat. It’s also advertised as less noisy and less expensive than the older model.
“This is our opportunity to reframe and reintroduce a new prevention tool to a whole new generation,” said Terlikowski, who co-founded Chicago Female Condom Campaign. “There are a lot of individuals who don’t have the knowledge or the negative preconceptions” of the older female condom.
Terlikowski said the feedback about FC2 has been overwhelmingly positive. Two main complaints from past users – the price and the amount of noise – have been addressed and corrected.
“We do a sound test,” Terlikowski said. “We hold up an old and new version and let everyone listen.”
The cost has come down about 25 percent; a pack of three condoms ranges from $5.99 to $7.99 in Chicago, and some local community health groups are allowing new users to try them for free.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois carries the FC2 at all 17 of its health centers, according to Kai Tao, vice president of clinical operations.
“We really feel like we want to do everything to increase more options for people,” Tao said. “It is one of the only barrier methods that is initiated by the receptive partner, for both males and females.”
At present, male and female condoms are the only options that protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Health advocates suggest female condom users try them a few times before deciding whether to buy the condoms regularly. “It’s new and different,” Terlikowski said. “It takes a little bit to get accustomed, like riding a bike or putting in contact lenses.”
Tao said Planned Parenthood clinicians throughout the state have described a gradual increase in the popularity of female condoms, particularly in Chicago, where there is more advocacy and the condoms are increasingly available.
Female condoms are also available in cities throughout the U.S., including Houston, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. – where CVS stores were the only commercial access to female condoms before Walgreens started stocking its shelves this spring.
“Walgreens is stepping up to the plate here. This is a significant step forward in helping to improve access,” Terlikowski said. “It normalizes it, to have it at the drugstore.”