“The next sexual revolution will be on the head of the penis,” Charlie tells me.
Charlie Powell is serious about condoms. Particularly, he’s serious about his distaste for them, which is why he developed his own, the Galactic Cap.
Traditional condoms, as we all know, act as a sheath running from the base of the penis to the tip. Charlie’s Galactic Cap is, well, a bit different. There’s an adhesive base that goes on the head of the penis; it’s there that you stick the polyurethane cap. This leaves the shaft and frenulum — the nerve-dense section on the underside of the penis’ head — exposed. After sex, you remove the Galactic Cap by peeling it by its tab like a strangely-placed sticker (ever-so slowly, of course).
If you thought the Galactic Cap was novel, you’re not alone. When Charlie proposed the Galactic Cap to the Gates Foundation’s new condom contest, they also thought it was novel. Actually, they thought it was too novel (or maybe just too skimpy). Instead, they went with 11 other condom designs that focused on developments in materials science like using the atom-thick material graphene.
Charlie was not impressed.
“All 11 covered the penis,” he said with frustration. “So basically, all 11 of their winners — and I know and work with two of them — covered the full penis, which is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Nobody’s gonna use that condom. I don’t care what you do. If it covers the full penis, it’s not fun.”
While Charlie didn’t get Gates’ support — or their $100,000 dollars — he did get investors. Plus he raised his own 100 grand with Indiegogo crowdfunding. This success turned into pre-orders from 26 countries and over three quarters of the US states.
These pre-orders are expected to ship out at the end of July assuming things go well over at the FDA. FDA testing is scheduled to begin in January. They’ll be zapping Galactic Caps with electrical pulses to test for holes, using liquid fill tests to check elastic integrity, and performing the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test.
The PSA test is … let’s just say interesting, and involves a few hundred couples. It starts by taking the woman — a very dedicated woman — and swabbing her vagina for semen. The couple then engages in sex with the Galactic Cap. After sex, the woman’s vagina is immediately swabbed again for semen. If the PSA test lights up positive for semen, then it’s a failure. This is somewhat of an engineering challenge because the adhesive for the Galactic Cap has to work in a wet environment to successfully prevent pregnancy.
Pregnancy prevention isn’t a particular strength of the traditional condom, at least not in the real world where its annual pregnancy rate is 18%. That’s a far cry from its perfect-use rate of 2%. Why the difference? Even when the condom is the primary method, many users don’t put it on every time, and sometimes they take it off before ejaculation (not a great idea).
Charlie again took aim at the traditional condom, “If you put polyurethane or latex over your lips and kiss somebody, it’s not [the same]. You know, skin to skin is everything. It’s the whole intimate part of sex.”
The difference in condoms’ perfect- and typical-use pregnancy rates seem to echo Charlie’s pessimistic commentary. These people that don’t use a condom consistently or (more likely) the over 80% of sexually active people that don’t use condoms at all, these are the ones Charlie has his eye on.
Whether the Galactic Cap can slim the difference between typical- and perfect use rates, that’s an empirical question we’ll have to wait out. But it’s a question Charlie seems optimistic on. He clarified the seriousness of unplanned parenthood in a way Yogi Berra would appreciate: “No one wants to have a child that they don’t want.”
Charlie continued, “The financial demands of raising a child today are extravagant, so you don’t want to go into it foolishly. If you’re in college or you’re in high school, [unplanned parenthood] craters what you can do. It torpedoes your education, it’s a huge financial responsibility, and your life is now focused on raising a child — not focused on getting the foundation to do that sort of thing. It’s bad for the child, and it’s bad for you.”
Other publications have seen additional benefits. LA Weekly ran an article with the headline, “This condom could save the porn industry.” Charlie assured me that was not his great intention.
Interestingly, it was HIV prevention that started Charlie’s quest for a better condom. A good friend of Charlie’s contracted HIV in the 80’s. His friend, fortunately, is the current beneficiary of modern HIV drugs. But Charlie imagines a different world where his friend had a condom option that was more acceptable, particularly a world with options acceptable to the gay community.
Charlie put AIDS in perspective: “They talk about Ebola and it’s killed like three to four thousand people. AIDS has killed 25 million. If you dropped a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t kill that many people.”
Charlie openly concedes that STD transmission is something that needs to be tested. But the mere fact that the Galactic Cap still captures semen suggests that it would lessen the transfer of semen-borne STD’s to the receptive partner. Those wanting additional protection would have to look at more traditional condoms (or maybe some of those atom-thick graphene ones).
(Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honey-comb pattern)
Naturally, I asked about price. About $2.50 per condom, Charlie tells us; at least that’s how he plans to start. Like most new technologies or premium products, there’s a costlier starting point, and then the price goes down over time. Predictably, the Galactic Cap would sell online first.
Overall, Charlie likes the Galactic Cap’s prospects. If you were wondering, he’s tried the prototype. He describes it as “night and day” over a traditional condom. And his market research shows consumers are highly interested in his product. He further pointed out that capturing just 5% of the market means a billion condoms a year. That’s a lot of Galactic Caps.