Shame No More at the Condom Store

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

From Magnum to Mango

By Ralph Cipriano
WebMD Feature

Feb. 12, 2001 -- The hooker was right in the middle of a transaction when the condom broke. So she rushed into Condom Kingdom, Philadelphia's largest retailer of prophylactics. She grabbed a 12-pack of Trojan Magnums off the rack and stood at the cash register buck naked except for a pair of boots and an open blouse.

"You see it all at this job," says Jason White, the store manager.

But it's not just the patrons. Over the years, the condom business has adopted a more public profile, opening specialty stores in many large cities and offering more options for their wares. From scents to colors to sizes to materials, they've come a long way since their first known use in ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

So with Valentine's Day and National Condom Week upon us -- and in addition to helping prevent pregnancy and disease -- can it be that condoms are starting to be more, well ... fun? (Keeping in mind, of course, that under FDA regulations, so-called "novelty condoms" are "for sexual amusement only," not to prevent infection or pregnancy. You can tell it's a "novelty" because it's illegal for it to be labeled as a condom.)

As he prepares for the holiday made famous by Cupid and Hallmark, White says his most popular product is Night Light, "the world's only glow-in-the-dark condom." The opaque prophylactics are three for $6.99. The next biggest seller: "Magnums for the 'bigger' gentleman," White says. At eight inches, they're a quarter-inch to half-inch longer than regular condoms. But Magnums aren't the biggest prophylactics at Condom Kingdom. That honor goes to Trojan-Enz Large -- a full 8.5 inches in length.

White vouches for the measurements, saying he doesn't take at face value any propaganda from manufacturers. Before a condom goes on the rack at Condom Kingdom, he unwraps one, rolls it out, and measures it for head, neck, length, and base size, as well as thickness. He posts the test results above each type of condom on display. But Trojan-Enz Large may not hold the king-size title for long. A new brand is on order, Magnum Extra-Large, that White says could be the new champ. He has his ruler ready.

The most popular color here? Pitch Black. "I don't know why. People just have a fascination with having a pitch black condom on," White says. Flavors are also the rage: chocolate, vanilla, cola, grape, banana, and paradise, which he says tastes like tropical fruit punch. The most popular variety? Strawberry.

The most expensive condoms: Kling Tite's natural lambskins (made from animal membranes), which sell at 12 for $39.99. They're also the shortest at 7.25 inches in length. (Warning: The CDC says lambskins may not block viruses because of microscopic holes in the material, and therefore do not effectively prevent sexually transmitted disease such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.)

White became the store manager after he got out of the Navy, where he was a submarine navigator. "We don't advertise," he says. "It's all word of mouth."  The store opens at 11 a.m., but customers usually start showing up at 4 p.m., right after they get out of work. Condom Kingdom draws about 2,000 customers on a typical Saturday.

"Women are more sexually adventurous than men," White says, estimating that women make up 75% of his customers. Many are on their way to bachelorette parties, and are looking for gag gifts, he says.

White also helps customers select lubricants. "What tastes good?" they ask. Try kiwi strawberry, he says. Or wine grape, fresh mango, and seedless watermelon. Red apple and pina colada are good, too. And, of course, there's sweet cherry.

Latex condoms are made by double-dipping penis-shaped forms into tanks of the compound, allowing drying to occur after each dip. The thin coating of latex is then removed from the form and tested electronically for holes under standards approved by the FDA, which regulates condoms as medical devices. At British-based maker Durex, for example, the company boasts that its tests include stretching the condoms, subjecting them to high voltage to detect any flaws, and filling them with air until they nearly burst. (In case you wondered, a typical condom holds 40 liters of air -- the equivalent of nine gallons of water -- before bursting, according to Durex.)

When used properly, latex condoms are 95% to 98% effective in preventing pregnancy, and can "greatly reduce" the risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, according to the CDC.

Condom stores also typically sell other sex toys, but let's not get into that. Suffice it to say that one such object, named in tribute to Bill Clinton, shows the former president doing something that might have totally avoided the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"This is a store people talk about," White says. "You come in here and you laugh."

The CDC, for its part, says correct condom use involves all of these steps:

  • Use a new condom for each act of oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse.
  • Use the condom throughout sex, from start to finish.
  • Put on the condom as soon as erection occurs and before any oral, vaginal, or anal contact with the penis. Hold the tip of the condom and unroll it onto the erect penis, leaving space at the tip (to allow room for ejaculate), yet ensuring that no air is trapped in the condom's tip. (Plus, don't go from anal to vaginal/oral intercourse without changing the condom, to prevent the introduction of gastrointestinal bacteria into those sites.)
  • Adequate lubrication is important to prevent condom breakage, but use only water-based lubricants, such as glycerin or lubricating jellies (which can be purchased at any pharmacy). Oil-based lubricants such as petroleum jelly, cold cream, hand lotion, or baby oil can weaken the structure of latex condoms and should NOT be used.
  • Withdraw from the partner immediately after ejaculation, holding the condom firmly at the base of the penis to keep it from slipping off.

Ralph Cipriano is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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