HEX vs Standard Condoms: Risk of Exposure
First, we can reasonably assume that, all else being equal, the larger the condom damage, the greater the risk of some sperm and germs getting through. So if HEX breaks the way the pin tests suggests, a small tear in one of its many hexagons should theoretically provide more protection than a completely disintegrated standard condom. Especially if the breakage happens at the moment of ejaculation, not giving the wearer any time to notice the standard condom breaking and stop intercourse.
Second, if the completely disintegrated standard condom is to offer any benefits over a slightly torn HEX when it comes to getting someone infected or pregnant in the first place, three things need to be true: 1) the breakage would need to happen before ejaculation took place; 2) the people would need to immediately notice the standard condom (but not the HEX) breaking, and 3) they would then stop having sex right away. But is this what actually happens when people have sex? Or do condoms often break before ejaculation, people not really notice a regular condom breaking until some time later, and sometimes don’t stop having sex even when they notice a condom has been compromised, giving ample time to any unwanted visitors swapping bodies?
Sadly, there is no published research on this particular question that I’m aware of. So, I did two quick online surveys of my social networks to try to get some more data on the questions of condom failures. (To any undergrads looking for an honors thesis or grad students looking for a research project, take this idea and run with it!) The first survey was taken by 267 respondents (58% women, 39% men, 3% trans/nonbinary/other; age range 18–60 with an average of 33); the second survey was taken by 144 respondents (46% women, 53% men, and 1% trans man; age range 18–59 with an average of 35). The two surveys had some overlapping questions and respondents, so I’m keeping their findings separate.
Across both surveys, 63–66% of respondents said they have had a condom break at least once during penetrative partnered sex. Half of those had experienced this only once or twice, 32% had experienced it 3–5 times, and 18% experienced it 6 or more times (including 5 participants who’ve had over 20 condom breakages!). I asked the people with at least one condom breakage experience to recall the last time this had happened to them and to tell me when exactly they noticed the break.
As you can see from the graph below, three quarters of people didn’t notice the condom had broken until some time after it had happened, with about half of those having felt it “before ejaculation,” meaning some time after it had broken but before ejaculation happened (e.g., while changing positions or taking a break), and the other half having felt it only after the condom wearer ejaculated inside (“after ejaculation”).
Of course, my respondents are by no means representative of the general population, and a larger and more representative study is in order. But, if anything, my friends and social media followers are probably somewhat more educated about and aware of safer sex practices than the average person; so the rates of not noticing a condom breaking might even be higher among the general population.
If most people don’t notice a standard condom breaking for a while, I think it’s pretty fair to argue that a slightly torn HEX would provide significantly higher protection from getting infected or pregnant compared to a completely shattered standard condom.
HEX vs. Standard Condoms: “Damage Control” After Exposure
Lorax’s main safety issue with HEX was that since HEX doesn’t break very obviously, it would fail to let the users know they’ve been exposed to unwanted sperm or germs, and therefore prevent them from taking measures to reduce the harm this exposure may have brought on.
Indeed, some people will do something about such exposure. In my survey, of those who had experienced condom breakage or slippage, 31% reported responding to their most recent incident by taking emergency contraception, 23% by having one or both partners getting tested, 3.5% by discussing it with other concurrent partners or starting to use condoms/barriers with previously fluid-bonded partners; no one responded by taking post-exposure prophylactic medicine. In total, 48% engaged in one or more of these “damage control” strategies mentioned by Lorax.
But over half (52%) didn’t do anything in particular to mitigate the risk exposure beyond, at most, discussing it with their partner and deciding that the risk was likely, or hopefully, minimal (for 9%, this was the first time having a discussion about other forms of birth control and/or STI history and testing).
Furthermore, when asked if they checked for condom leakage after sex with a condom, only 22% of all respondents said they did this most or all the time; 34% said they never or almost never did this, and the other 44% said they did this only if they had a reason to believe the condom was compromised.
So, as Lorax argued, for some people, the obvious nature of the standard condom breaking does indeed serve as a red flag system leading them to using concrete strategies to minimize the risks of exposure. But there seem to be as many people out there, if not more (remember, my particular audience is likely more educated and aware of safer sex protocols than the average person) for whom knowing whether the condom broke or not doesn’t lead to any particular harm reduction behavior, beyond hoping for the best.