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This article was published on August 20, 2015

This startup wants to ‘disrupt’ the condom: It’s… um… wrong-headed

This startup wants to ‘disrupt’ the condom: It’s… um… wrong-headed
Mic Wright
Story by

Mic Wright

Reporter, TNW

Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy. Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy.

Condoms are vital. Condoms can save lives and stop the arrival of children who will be unloved and unwanted. Condoms are also sometimes awkward and a little uncomfortable. But if you’re running your sex life right, they’re probably the price of… um… entry.

Regardless, it’s true that the traditional latex condom isn’t perfect. A significant number of people are allergic to the material. Others have difficulties with sizing – both too tight and too loose. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you’re in the first category.

When there’s a product that’s used by millions of people across the world, it’s inevitable that someone will try to ‘disrupt’ the market. There have been many attempts over the years to do it with condoms. Bill Gates even ran an international competition to redesign and reimagine the prophylactic.

Captain Picard knows…
Captain Picard knows…

L. is the latest company to get some press traction with its designs on the dicks of the world. As with most startups today, its ad copy reaches for the utopian and lands in overheated territory:

We are L. – a company dedicated to world changing sex.
We sell products that sex a new bar in quality in order to raise funds for the movement to make safe sex a human right. L. condoms are made from the highest grade materials on earth without the harmful additives. For every condom you purchase, one is distributed in a developing country in need.
Get love, give love. Start here.

On the surface that sounds entirely reasonable and you might roll your eyes at me taking the time to criticize the company’s efforts. But dig a little deeper and there are problems with both the philosophy behind and execution of the idea.

And no, I’m not saying it’s ‘problematic’. That word is one of the internet’s most… alright, problematic.

First up, that serious sounding note about “harmful additives” is a little woo-woo, faux-sciencey. While there are some people who have issues with lubricants that use chemicals like glycerin and parabens, studies aren’t conclusive.

It’s worth noting that parabens may affect female hormones but we don’t know for sure. There are already lots of options out there if you want to avoid the (uncertain) risk.

There’s a bigger question around L.’s one-for-one model – an approach it shares with other companies like glasses maker Warby Parker. The idea is that for every L. condom you buy, another is donated to people who need them in countries where HIV and AIDS epidemics are carving through the population.

Brutally honest.
Brutally honest.

That is a laudable aim, but it doesn’t address one of the biggest reasons that condom use is less common than it should be in Africa and elsewhere: Religion. Catholic and Islamic dogma plays a big role in the lack of condom uptake in many nations.

What is undeniably laudable about L. is that it is aiming to invest money in training women up as health workers and giving them a source of income. That is arguably the best way to address the AIDS crisis in Africa: Empowering women to change the conversation and ultimately their communities.

Hipster pleasing ideas like 1 hour delivery by bicycle courier in some US cities and the 1-to-1 model, along with its slick copywriting and pleasingly classy website have got L. lots of press coverage.

However, a 1-to-1 model for high volume consumable items like condoms is not nearly as effective as one for shoes or eyeglasses, which are high cost. Similarly, the most effective way to blanket areas which do not have enough access to contraception is through larger non-governmental organizations and government action, both of which are stifled by the involvement of and lobbying by religious groups.

Dating the @marcmaron way…
Dating the @marcmaron way…

It’s not that I’m outright decrying L.’s intentions or suggesting that the company should not exist. But the issue both in the developed and developing world is not that condoms aren’t good enough, but that the people who should be using them aren’t.

It’s not dick sheaths but dicks that need disrupting and that’s a much trickier proposition.

L. Condoms