How women-led companies are trying to make condoms more appealing — to everyone

With sexually transmitted infections surging to alarming levels in Canada and the U.S. over several years, a number of female entrepreneurs have moved into the condom industry, intent on making change.

Canadian companies Jems and Slipp aim to change how condoms are marketed

Two women with long dark hair and both wearing white blouses hold up condom packages to the camera.

With sexually transmitted infections surging to alarming levels in Canada and the U.S. over several years, a number of female entrepreneurs have moved into the condom industry, intent on making change.

The $8.3 billion US global business is dominated by five massive companies that produce brands like Durex, Trojan and Lifestyles. And it was drug stores shelves, packed with hyper-masculine images from some of those brands, that inspired the Canadian women behind two new companies to get into the market.

Their plan? To change how condoms are marketed and sold to make them more appealing to any gender or sexuality, normalizing the idea that anyone can buy them.

Whitney Geller and Yasemin Emory co-founded Toronto-based Jems in 2020, after being surprised on a trip to the pharmacy by what they say are the toxic stereotypes and embarrassing imagery they found on some condom packaging.

"It looked like something from the 1950s," said Geller.

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"It all seemed to be speaking to males," added Emory, "certainly we noticed we felt excluded."

Victoria Lyons started London, Ont.-based Slipp in 2021. When she quit hormonal birth control and was seeking condoms, she says she felt put off by the warrior icon of Trojan packages, and others focused on performance.

"You kind of feel like the products there aren't really speaking to you or aren't necessarily made with you in mind."

Now, Jems and Slipp are among 10 female-owned condom companies CBC News found around the world in an online search, most quite new to the business.

Doing condoms differently

Both Jems and Slipp are taking a different approach to branding and who they're targeting as customers.

At Jems, Emory says, "we wanted it to be a fun name, something light, playful." They wanted a gender-neutral and inclusive overall look, said Geller, "so it feels like it's not for women or for men, it's really for everyone."

The demographic they're focused on is the teens to late 20s crowd known as Gen Z. Their goal is to take away the awkwardness or stigma of buying condoms for any shopper.

At Slipp, the packaging is purple and pink, and Lyons says the focus is to normalize women carrying condoms.

Both companies also say their products are made with only natural latex and 100 per cent silicone lubrication, to reduce vaginal irritation and skin reactions.

The condom section at a downtown Toronto Pharmasave store. The shelf is mostly full of the Trojan brand, with features an iconic warrior head silhouette graphic.

A tough business

Getting into the condom business isn't easy. A 2021 research report says more than 35 billion condoms are sold globally every year, but only a handful of factories in the world make them and the minimum orders are huge.

Lyons crowdfunded and used savings to pay for her initial order of 300,000 condoms with Slipp. With only a few independent shops carrying her brand, she says most of her business is online.

"The pressure is definitely on given there's so much inventory," she said.

A young woman with long hair stands in spacious bright room with a book shelf and red chair behind her.

The pressure is on Jems, too.

Geller and Emory started Jems as a side hustle from the design company they own together. After three years, Jems has a staff of five and deals with major retailers.

A key part of the company's plan: make sure its product isn't sold just in drug store condom sections, but instead is alongside other essentials, like hand sanitizer or sunscreen. The idea seems to be working.

Jems is the only condom carried by Whole Foods Canada, is stocked in select Loblaws in Ontario, and is being launched in 150 Target stores in the U.S. The company has raised money from investors for online advertising to help sell several hundred thousand condoms and stay on store shelves.

"It is nominal though in comparison to what the major brands are spending," said Geller, so Jems is using social media and event partnerships to boost its profile.

A tall narrow wooden display case full of mint green boxes of condoms with labelled in blue with the name Jems

The danger of pink-washing

Farrah Khan, a gender equity advocate and the Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said she hopes women getting involved in the condom industry will help flip the sexual script that only men should carry condoms and control when they're used.

Khan says to be truly inclusive it's important companies invest in women's health and the health of gender non-binary people, "to understand what people's needs are, how they have sexual communication, how they want to have condoms be used to prevent other things besides just pregnancy."

"Obviously we don't want just a pink-washing," she added, "where they're like, 'oh, we put a pretty flower on it, we're done.'"

An international trend

Both Jems and Slipp are part of an international trend. A female-owned condom company in India called Bleu launched in 2019, and there are two in Australia, Get Down, which started in 2020, and Jonny, founded in 2018.

In the U.K., there's Hanx, which started in 2017 and was co-founded by a gynecologist.

In the U.S., several female-owned companies make sexual health products, including condoms, like Maude (with actor Dakota Johnson as a partner), Lola, (Serena Williams and model Karlie Kloss are investors), and Lovability, which was founded in 2013.

Lyons said she sees all of them as part of an evolution. She points out that sexual health products have gone mainstream, with vibrators and lubricants now carried by retailers like Indigo and Sephora.

"I really feel like we're seeing a shift," she said, "talking more about sex in a healthy way with female pleasure and health and reproductive health at the forefront."

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Lyons recalls launching her business in May last year, on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the abortion rights case Roe v Wade was leaked. She says it made her feel like what she was doing was even more important.

"The mission behind the business really is about empowering women in particular to feel in control of their reproductive health," she said.

At Jems, the founders also feel their business can make a difference.

"There can be a real positive outcome if we're able to shift the mindset around condoms," Emory said.

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