by Franki Cookney
We’ve all heard the slogans: No glove, no love. Wrap it before you tap it. Don’t be a fool, cover your tool.
But while expressions like this make condom use sound light-hearted and easy, the reality is that many people find using condoms awkward, confusing and sometimes just not much fun.
A PHE YouGov survey found that almost half of young people aged 16-24 don’t use a condom when having sex with a new partner. Reasons include finding it embarrassing, not wanting to “ruin the moment”, disliking the sensation, or having problems with them breaking or coming off.
Happily, there are ways to incorporate condoms without losing out on pleasure. By playing around with different types of condoms and lube you can find a configuration that feels great for both you and your partner. As always, it’s a case of figuring out what works for you...
Broaching the subject
In an ideal world we’d discuss sexual health before things started to get steamy, says sex educator Ruby Stevenson. “If you're going home with someone, it's good to be upfront with them and ask when their last STI test was and discuss condom use before you get into the bedroom, when you're less likely to get swept up in the moment,” she said.
Instead we often put off “the chat” and wait until the last minute before we raise the subject. For some people, this works fine, for others it feels stressful.
“I think it is sexy, the moment of my partner going to get a condom because I think it triggers a ‘Oh it’s about to get goooood!’ moment in my mind.” - David
One way is to make sure you have condoms out already so both partners can see them. Phrasing it as a question rather than a demand can also help keep the tone relaxed while also communicating your needs and expectations.
“When I or my partner says ‘Shall I get a condom?’ it’s quite a nice way to introduce penetrative sex and check you’re both up for it.” - Alyssa
Choosing the right condom
A recent survey, found one in three women had been told by their partners that regular condoms were too small. Whether this is true or not, when it comes to condoms, the size may matter but the real difference is in the shape. Finding one that fits well can be a game-changer.
“I have a penis that curves to the right when erect so they never fit me well and tend to slip off or split.” - Andy
A condom that is too tight is at risk of tearing and can be painful. A condom that is too loose will provide less friction and can slip off. Moreover, worrying about condoms tearing or slipping off can be just as much of a mood killer as the physical sensation.
Several condom manufacturers now offer online tools or apps to help you find your measurements and order the correct size. You may need to try a few different brands and designs before you find one that feels good for you and your partner.
FPA’s clinical consultant Karin O’Sullivan says that people who have trouble finding a good fit might want to look for flared or tapered shapes.
“For someone like Andy, a flared-ended condom might be better as they are larger around the head of the penis. If you’re having problems with condoms slipping off, look for ones which are shaped a bit narrower at the neck - this helps keep them on. You can also get straight-sided condoms with no teat at the end.”
Condoms also come in different materials, the most common of which is latex. Latex allergy is rare but if you or your partner is experiencing redness, itching and a rash it is possible you need to switch to a latex-free condom.
Whatever the size, shape, and material though, it’s crucial to pinch the tip of the condom when putting it on. Contrary to popular belief, this is the most common reason condoms split, not because they’re too small.
“Ejaculate is released at around 28 miles per hour and can be up to 5ml in volume so it’s vital you leave space in the condom,” explains Karin. “When you pinch the end of the condom it expels the air. If you don't do this, the pressure of the ejaculate can cause it to break."
Going with the flow
Even once the subject has been raised, actually getting one out and putting it on can be a challenge. Fumbling around can feel frustrating and can even cause people to lose their erection. The main thing is not to worry.
“Sex scenes in films often portray putting on a condom as a comedic moment that stops the flow of sex, so it's no surprise these messages filter into our own sex lives,” said Ruby. “But it's very easy to get yourself back in the moment and continue enjoying yourself.”
“Condom packets are impossible to open when you have lube on your hands! I unwrap the condom beforehand and have it in easy reach and facing the right way up.” - Simon
Sex also doesn’t have to involve non-stop activity. You might pause to change position, take pictures or find sex toys. Stopping for a drink of water or to catch your breath can also take the pressure off the idea that sex has to constantly “flow”.
“I tend to make it fun by offering to put it on myself or playing with the guys balls (or myself!) while they do it.” - Anita
Many people find it sexy when someone puts the condom on for them. Involving both partners in the moment makes it feel less of a passion-killer and can help reduce our anxieties around them.
It’s not just about preventing pregnancy and STIs!
For people who struggle with premature ejaculation, condoms with numbing gels on them can help people last longer during penetration.
“Dulled sensation is one of the downsides of condoms, but it also makes you last longer, so even the downsides have upsides!” - Mike
“I have a tight foreskin which can make condoms tricky and painful. I pick condom types and sizes that I know work for me and I put a tiny bit of lube in the end.” - Charlie
When it comes to pleasurable penetrative sex, lube is your best friend! Whether you’re the one wearing the condom or the one receiving penetration, finding a lube you like and using plenty of it can go a long way to improving your experience.
“I get far more chafing with condoms. Lube is essential.” - Lucy
“Make sure it's water based not oil-based, as this can damage latex condoms,” said Ruby. “And focus on the outside of the condom. If you put too much inside it's more likely to slip off.”
Many people - such as Charlie (above) - find putting a pea-sized blob of lube in the tip of the condom before rolling it on makes it more comfortable and increases sensitivity but this doesn’t suit everyone so play around and see what feels good.
“Using even a small amount of lube before putting on a condom just utterly destroys any and all friction as well as my erection.” - Gordon.
Don’t forget there are also many different kinds of lube available and you might need to try a few before you find one you like. Furthermore, a lube that works for vaginal sex might not feel as good for anal sex. Many people find silicone lubes more suited to anal sex than water-based ones since they last longer (although they're harder to wash off). Silicone lubes are fine to use with both latex and polyutherene condoms.
Some people also like the warming, cooling or tingling effects that some condoms offer but there are also lubes that do this so you can play around with the quantity and find a level of sensation that feels good.
The condoms themselves also come with different lubrication on them which can make a difference to how they feel - both for the user and their partner. Lubes can also irritate so if you or your partner feel uncomfortable or experience a mild itching or stinging during or after sex, it could be time to try a different lube.
Some people find masturbating with condoms helps them discover what kinds of pressure and movement feels good as well as letting them try out different types such as ribbed or dotted ones.
“I often use condoms for masturbating. It provides a different and fun experience. My favourites are the textured ones with ribs and dots and I’ve also tried extra thick and extra thin ones.” - Alex
If you or your partner struggles to reach orgasm when wearing a condom, remember you don’t have to climax that way. You could put a condom on to enjoy penetration for a while and then use your hands to finish.
Pleasure is personal so the key with condoms – as with all elements of sex - is to experiment and find what feels good for you.
Written and researched for Sexwise by Franki Cookney. Franki is a freelance journalist who writes mostly on sex, gender politics and social development.