Keys? Check. Wallet? Check. Phone? Check. Condoms? Check.

Whatever you call them – rubbers, Johnnies, or even a French letter if you’re being super-fancy – you’ve probably used them.

While over the years we’ve seen a huge shift in attitudes to condoms, from being shunned in the 70s to considered cool (for the majority of us) by the noughties, they’re something that is now used without hesitation. Well, most of the time.

But what’s seen them turn into such a must-have item?

It was way back in 1855 that we were introduce to the first phophylactic, which was made from rubber as thick as a bicycle inner tube and custom made. Fast forward nearly 170 years and Durex – a brand that occupies 40% of the global condom market, worth $4.6bn – are set to deliver their ‘thinnest’ ever condoms called Nude, to ‘maximise sensation’, this year.

However, it’s a metamorphosis has been a long time coming (puns aside) – and one involving a global health crisis, accidental pregnancies, demand for better options… not forgetting the ongoing pleasure debate.

Ben Wilson, sexual wellbeing director at Reckitt, home to Durex, says that although there’s still taboo surrounding condoms, it’s only been in the last three decades that significant progress has been made.

‘We’ve always tried to break the stigma around condoms, such as people feel they can’t have the conversation around safe sex, an embarrassment of buying condoms, and the ever-old challenge around condoms “reducing pleasure”,’ he tells

These days though, he adds, users are ‘thinking about a condom as part of a larger sexual occasion, versus just the moment of penetration’ and says that condoms ‘remove the anxiety’ of unplanned pregnancy and contracting an STI or STD.

From Ben’s perspective, marketing has played a huge role in getting people on board with using them.

‘In the 1970s, we were sponsoring Formula 1 and lots of motorsports, because there was a young male demographic watching these things at the time. In the 1990s we were doing work with MTV, which also attracted young people,’ he explains.

‘Durex has a huge history, but during World War 2, the supply of condoms from the US and Germany dried up, so Durex as a British company became the key player in the market. However, it was only in the 1990s condom usage became “normal” and widespread.

‘Culture and wider society issues have had an impact too. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s was a huge driver for the benefits of condoms.’

While censorship stopped conversations from breaking down stigma, some ad companies worked hard to get their product message across.

For example, back in 2010, advertising condoms was forbidden in France. However, one French non-profit, supporting those with HIV and AIDS called Aides, decided to create an advert showing graffiti drawings of genitalia enjoying sex with a condom.

Despite it going against guidelines, the short video was given the green light, paving the way for future condom advertising.

Usage is a whole other beast though, and the reasons people personally choose to go with and without condoms wildly vary.

A study among homosexual men found common reasons for not using one included being in a steady relationship (32.8%), being unprepared (19.4%), and not being bothered (19.4%).

Meanwhile, other research has looked into being pressured by men, especially as a woman, to forgo condom use.

Tricia Wise, is a safe sex influencer who goes by the name Safe Slut. She tells that although she always prefers to use condoms, there were times in the past when she felt pressured to go without – that was until she contracted genital herpes (HSV2) in November 2019.

‘I liked to practice safe sex when I could, but I was also very afraid of advocating for myself,’ Tricia, 29, explains. ‘So if I was with people who were making a big deal about wearing a condom I’d say it was fine to go without, but then feel anxious and get tested afterwards.

‘Condoms have always been my preferred method of contraception.

‘Now that I have herpes, I’m an even bigger fan of safer sex, but with herpes, condoms aren’t 100% effective. It can help reduce the risk, but herpes is transferred skin to skin, not fluid, so as the condom isn’t covering your entire genital area, it can spread.’

For Tricia, communication is key when practicing safe sex.

‘I ask my partner when they’ve been tested and what those results look like, then I share my status, then we decide what we want to do,’ she explains.

‘My main thing when I’m going to have the disclosure conversation is I don’t do it in the moment, I do it before when clothes are still on.

‘I always start by asking them about their sexual health, because as well as using condoms to lessen the risk of spreading herpes, I’m doing it to protect myself from them too.

‘The response is always telling – if they say they don’t get tested or use stigmatising language, that’s a turn off for me.’

For casual one night stands, condoms are ‘not even a question’ for Tricia, who adds that she’s never had any bad responses when revealing she has HSV – either they ask for more information, or already are clued up.

The evolution of condoms

The evolution of condoms

James* was another who had his contraception choice shaped by personal experience.

Never a ‘one-night stand kind of guy’, he says condoms just weren’t a subject he’d discuss with friends – and are still something he feels self-conscious talking about, which is why he didn’t want to share his identity.

Although James admits he wasn’t initially a fan of the contraception, the 27-year-old now swears by them.

‘When I got comfortable with a new partner, I used to do the pullout method,’ he explains, adding that he felt like he could trust them to be truthful about STIs or or get tested.

‘The emotion in the moment would take over, and even though I knew the method is risky, I didn’t really care – until I experienced a pregnancy scare.

‘My partner was told she was pregnant at a hospital when she went to A&E in pain. But then 10 minutes later, they told her it was a mistake and she wasn’t.

‘It was a huge shock to the system,’ admits James. ‘So now I use condoms, because I have a primal fear that if I become a dad, I will be absolutely f****d.’

Being diagnosed with gonorrhea was a massive wake up call for Emma*, who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of stigma still surrounding the STI.

She says she chose not to use condoms as she preferred the sensation without them and found the act of putting one on mid-foreplay a ‘mood kill’.

‘There was never an active decision not to use condoms, it was more that I would get caught up in the heat of the moment and go without, because I was on another form of contraception (either the pill or implant),’ Emma explains.

‘I put STIs to the back of mind – even though I knew that was stupid. Then someone I’d slept with informed me he had gonorrhea. It was hugely embarrassing, from telling past partners so they could be checked to having to take time out of work to visit the clinic for treatment.

‘It was also a massive wake-up call, however, and made me realise that the real mood-killer is contracting the clap.’

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Now in a long term relationship, Emma uses condoms every time they’re intimate due to side effects with hormonal contraception.

‘While rootling around in a drawer for a condom mid-way through foreplay isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, it’s far better than an unplanned pregnancy,’ she adds.

‘If I was single, I’d insist on using a condom and it’d be a deal breaker for me to be met with resistance. After all, I learned of the consequences of avoiding condoms the hard way.’

Not all sexual health concerns can be avoided with condoms, however.

Aside from the health perspective, even with perfect use, two in every 100 people will have unintended pregnancy each year, while ‘typical use’, according to the NHS, sees 12 in every 100.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using them, as no form of contraception is perfect, but it does point to the difference they can make if used properly.

Currently in the UK, gonorrhoea cases jumped by over 50% between 2021 and 2022, it’s the highest number of diagnoses made in a year since records began in 1918.

For all of the progress made to make condom use common practice, there’s still work to be done evidently.

Though it’s worth noting that other forms of protection have been widely advocated for, too. Among gay men, the use of PrEP – HIV prevention medication – is also popular and might inadvertently reduce condom reliance.

Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy and public affairs at Brook, a sexual health charity, tells ‘The high level of gonorrhoea clearly tells us that there is insufficient condom use.

‘This is also reflected in what we are seeing in our own clinics, where over the past four years the number of people saying they do not use condoms has increased by over 10%.

‘It is vital that the effective promotion of testing and treatment for STIs is matched by stronger messages about prevention and the need for consistent condom use.  

‘Sexual health services are already stretched to breaking point with a huge rise in demand for services alongside many years of cuts to funding. Additional investment needs to be provided for national and local schemes to promote and provide condoms.’

There can be a generational divide too, in terms of attitudes to condoms.

Mark*, who is in his late 30s, has gone through phases of irregular condom use in the past due to feeling less anxious about catching STIs, and enjoying periods of hedonistic sex.

He previously worked as a fitness model and went to sex parties in his 30s, during a time he describes as being ‘high on testosterone’.

Although the sex party scene always advocates for the use of condoms, Mark didn’t always use them. One ocassion he remembers was during a threesome with men and women, where he says he got caught up in the moment and, in his words, wanted to ‘spread his seed’.

Now, he tells he wouldn’t run the risk as you ‘just can’t know’ if someone is healthy or taking birth control properly.

‘We’re descended from apes, and condoms aren’t natural – it’s a fact of life – but I’m absolutely pro-condoms,’ he says.

‘I came out of my old phase due to loss and grief within my family. It made me change my lifestyle.’

And as popularity and demand for condoms continues to grow, some makers have been thinking outside the box in a bid to make their’s the go-to brand.

Roam offers skin tone condoms in a range of shades, to ‘celebrate individuality’ as they put it online; then there are ultra-thin condoms from brands like Skyn to combat the pleasure issue; while others such as Hanx, who are meeting the needs of vegans and the chemically conscious. Environmentally friendly options are also offered by XO! whose products carbon neutral and biodegrade in a year.

However, we still haven’t reached condom perfection says Ben, who thinks there’s more innovation to come – and the more skin-like they feel, the better in terms of uptake.

‘I think condoms that deliver the most pleasure are going to be the winners, because ultimately the constant battle for us is how to deliver more pleasure,’ he explains.

‘That could be in how thin or transparent it is, how it smells, or what materials and lubrication is used. All those sensorial elements.’

‘Protection and pleasure together,’ he adds. Which is ultimately all anyone could want from a condom.

Sexual Health Awareness Week runs from 11-17 September, for more information click here.

*Names have been changed.

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