The condom is the most widely used male contraceptive. It is made from thin rubber, polyurethane, or animal tissue and covers the penis, blocking sperm from entering the vagina.
Condoms are now widely and easily available in most parts of the U.S., in pharmacies and AIDS prevention projects, and are available in varying colors, with and without lubricants, and with and without spermicide. Sometimes they are used with foam or vaginal inserts which contain a chemical that stops sperm from swimming.
Used correctly, condoms by themselves are 88-92 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Foam used alone is 72-97 percent effective in pregnancy prevention. When used together, condoms and foam or vaginal inserts are 98-99 percent effective. Latex and polyurethane (but not "natural" animal skin) condoms are also effective in preventing the transmission of STDs and HIV.
Moreover, these methods are relatively inexpensive, are available without a prescription or doctor's exam, and have few if any side effects (although some people have allergies to spermicide or latex). Condom failure is often the consequence of improper use, especially failing to leave a small space at the head of the condom to catch the ejaculated semen, or having the condom come off while the penis is still in the vagina.
Care must be taken as well to use a finger to hold the condom in place when removing the penis from the vagina to avoid spillage. On the negative side, condoms must be replaced before each time intercourse occurs and many men complain that condoms dull physical pleasure.
Female Condom as Birth Control and Contraceptive
Recently, a female condom has come on the market, although it is still comparatively expensive. The female condom consists of a loose-fitting, lubricated polyurethane sheath (that is inserted into the vagina) and two flexible polyurethane rings. One ring is fixed at the closed, narrow end of the sheath and serves as an insertion device, the other ring forms the opposite external edge of the sheath and remains outside of the vagina covering the external labia. Because the female condom is relatively new, many women have not had experience with it and its popularity is not yet determined.
The Cervical Cap as Birth Control and Contraceptive
A range of additional contraceptives are readily available, including the cervical cap, a thimble shaped rubber or plastic cap that fits securely over the cervix and extends into the vagina. Used with a spermicide, the effectiveness of the cap is comparable to that of a diaphragm. Like the diaphragm, it can be inserted long before intercourse (but can be left in for up to 3 days after intercourse) and is found to be more comfortable than a diaphragm by some women.