Friday Weird Science: Condom Survey Results are In!!

Mar 20 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Take this as proof of just how dedicated Sci is to all of you. She spent her who day staring at a screen working up data, and then she spent the whole NIGHT doing it as well! But hey, inquiring minds wanted to know!
And so, the results of....The condom survey

First of all, I want to give Dave Munger a HUGE hug for taking over the survey on his larger-capacity survey-monkey account. Thanks to him, I got much larger samples! Large n's always make Sci happy.

Second, a big shout out to everyone who took the survey!!! We had a total of 270 responses! I know several people complained that it wasn't a study for those who had never HAD a condom break, and to them I say, hey, it's my first survey, cut me some slack. I appreciate very much everyone who responded!
Also, please forgive me for graphs that may not look so hot. It's late, Sci is VERY tired (in the words of Dr. Isis, she was turning out some REALLY hot science all day), and she's trying to make graphs in Excel. Normally, I use a super fancy graphing program that I'm pretty good at, so Excel often baffles me. Especially when you try to put in figure legends. Grrrr...
But anyway, to the study.
It appears most of you have been fairly lucky with regard to condom breaks (though that could be the result of the sampling).
1. How often have your condoms broken during sexual intercourse?
Actual values as percent of total responses:
Never: 48.9 %
Rarely (<1 per year): 43%
Fairly Often (1-4x per year): 7%
Often: 1%
You can see here that just over half of respondents had ever had a condom break at all, and of those the vast majority had less than one per year (and often, as stated in the comments, only one break ever). This is good, and I'm sure something that condom companies will be happy to hear.
2. When a condom has broken, what was the break most commonly like?
This question was a difficult one for me with answers, because what ARE condom breaks most like, anyway? I went with some of the types listed in the original article on condom breakage, and the participants were good little scientists and very helpful about saying when they had something else occur. And it appeared that the ones I picked were indeed the most common:
Actual Values as % of total responses:
Small hole near tip: 6.6%
small hole near shaft: 7.6%
large hole near tip: 18.8%
large hole near shaft: 18.8%
head tore loose from shaft: 20.8%
peeling backward: 22.3%
Other: 5.1%
I think that some of the reason so many people report large holes is because they don't NOTICE the hole until it's large. You gotta figure every hole started out small originally. I'm mostly impressed by the high numbers where the head tore loose completely from the shaft of the condom, and where the entire thing peeled backward like a banana. That...sounds a little painful. I imagine you have to fish them out sometimes...
3. When a condom has broken, what was the general level of lubrication present? Please choose the closest approximation to the scenario.
This was a question I was really interested in. The authors of last week's study hypothesized a lubrication issue could contribute to condom breakage, especially when lubrication was high on the inside of the condom, and low on the outside. Interestingly, the numbers from this survey don't seem to back this up:
Actual Values as % of total responses:
High lubrication outside, low inside: 48.5%
High outside, high inside: 22%
Low outside, low inside: 18%
Low outside, high inside: 11.4%
If the author's hypothesis was correct, I'd expect to see much higher numbers for the "low outside, high inside" choice. I wasn't necessarily expecting it, I though the "low outside, low inside" would be the clear winner, as it seems like it would have the most friction. So I was very surprised to see that low lubrication inside, and high outside, appeared to result in the majority of breaks. I wouldn't say this survey is representative, but this question could help provide information on lubrication conditions.

4. When a condom has broken, what type of activity was generally occurring? You may choose more than one.

This is my favorite question. 🙂 My hypothesis here would be that higher athleticism (fast and furious, or possibly trying all sorts of positions and angles) would be the most likely thing to create friction and possible weak places in condoms. And I was right.
Actual Values as % of total responses:
vaginal, low athleticism: 37%
vaginal, high athleticism: 50%
anal, low athleticism: 2%
anal, high athleticism: 5%
oral: 1%
other: 4%
(Those who answered "other" generally described condom breaks during application of the condom)
So it's clear that highly athletic sex increases your chances of condom breakage, though the number of condom breaks during relatively un-athletic was still rather large. But it does appear that athleticism influences condom breakage, as you can see with anal sex, where the chance of a condom break is doubled during high athleticism, and vaginal sex shows a similar result, though not as drastic an increase.

5. What brand of condom is your preference?

This is where I really wished that I had added another question, specifically "what brand of condom has given you the most breaks?" or something like that. As it is, I can't make a correlation between amount of breaks and condom preference unless I go to the raw data, which is in what I can only call the Excel spreadsheet from hell. I could do it, but I have a day job.
Anyway, brand preference:
Trojan carried away the context with 46% of the vote, Durex came in a trailing second with 27%, and LIfestyles with 12.8%. 2% used non-latex, and 11% used other types, including RFSU, Beyond Seven, Prime, Matex, or Crown.
And I'd really kill to see which ones were correlated with the most breaks. Sigh...another day, another survey. Perhaps I will be able to do that cross-correlation when I have a full day to spend on it. Or not.

6. How would you generally describe the fit of the condom on yourself or your partner?

As one participant noted, a lot of people, when first using condoms, think that they need to be SUPER tight. This is not the case. It should be tight, but comfortable. There should be no sausage-like bulging, and there should be room in the tip. Nonetheless, a significant portion of respondents reported using condoms of "tight" fit at least, though few fell into the "very tight" category. Hey, at least no one fell into the "very loose" category. That looked like a disaster.
Actual Values as % of total responses:
V tight: 3.9%
tight: 29%
loose: 4.2%
V loose: 0
7. How would you describe the general fit of the penis, with condom attached, and the orifice used during episodes in which a condom has broken?
This is another question Sci was very interested in. I figured that a pretty tight fit would mean more friction, and thus more breaks. The data do show that to some extent (also, you're getting bar graphs from now on, Sci is REALLY tired and those pie graphs are a bitch when you're trying to get the damn legends to work):
Actual Values as % of total responses:
V tight: 3.9%
tight: 27.6%
normal: 67%
loose: 1.7%
V loose: 0
There appears to be a leaning of the curve toward the tighter end of the spectrum, but that was also the case for condom fit, so I wouldn't want to draw any conclusions. Were I to do a cross-correlation, I would look at tightness of fit and lubrication state, as well as tightness of fit and athleticism involved. I think that would be pretty interesting. But it appears most breaks occurred with a normal fit, so you can blame it on tightness all the time. And you CERTAINLY can't blame it on looseness.
8. During the most recent condom break, was space left in the reservoir at the tip of the condom?
Yes: 76.4%
No: 23.6%
Alright. I'm assuming that in the case of those who said "no", they were relatively inexperienced, or possibly had a condom on that was too tight (also possible due to inexperience). And it's almost 1/4, which is a bit higher than I was expecting. For those who did leave space at the tip, congratulations, you have mastered the use of the condom. Breakage was probably due to other factors. For those who didn't leave space...well, it may not have caused the break, but I'm pretty sure it didn't help.
For those who are still inexperienced: leave a space at the tip. The sperm gotta go somewhere. It's also, for those who are good at reading directions, on the directions which are on the condom box on how to put the condom on. It is best to read these directions before engaging in shenanigans.
9. If you have experienced repeated condom breaks, what measures were taken to resolve the problem?
Actual Values as % of total responses:
None: 53.5%
Switched Brands: 24%
Switched type of sex: 6.35%
Other: 16%
I was a little surprised that most people didn't try anything different to resolve the problem, but I figure that in most cases it's a one-time thing. Many participants cited going up a size as solving their problems entirely, implying that breakages occurred when condoms were too tight. Those who cited "other" tended to use other forms of birth control such as oral contraceptives, and one simply said "got married". I don't know whether that solved the condom breakage or simply brought all sexual activity to a halt, but hey, whatever works. Several people cited using more lubrication, which appeared to help.
10. Please include any other details on recent condom breaks that you feel would be helpful to the surveyors (that would be me).

These responses were very helpful, and I want to give an extra thank you to those who gave me details as well as filling in the bubbles.
Several people cited old condoms as being a problem. Equal numbers blames Lifestyles, Trojan, and Durex, so I'm not sure which one is most likely. I did an internet search, but my Google-fu wasn't with me this evening. If anyone happens to have stats on this and wants to share, it'd be awesome!
And that's the whole survey! Thanks again for everyone who took it! I will try to do better next time with asking some better questions. We all improve with practice. I would welcome any interpretations, as well as other suggestions on how to improve future surveys (which may or may not be on condom use). Thanks again to Cognitive Daily, I couldn't have done it without you!

28 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    Totally awesome!

  • Dave Munger says:

    Nice analysis. I'd help you with that cross-correlation, but I've got my own survey to analyze today. Thanks for tackling a subject that CogDaily wouldn't get within twenty miles of!

  • Tine says:

    In the intercourse type/breakage graph it would be interesting to note whether the anal/vaginal breakage difference was due to vaginal sex occurring more often, or whether it was due to other factors, i.e. using more lubricant in anal sex.

  • llewelly says:

    So I was very surprised to see that low lubrication inside, and high outside, appeared to result in the majority of breaks. I wouldn't say this survey is representative, but this question could help provide information on lubrication conditions.

    I would expect low lubrication inside and high lubrication outside would be the most common way for most people to have sex. Thus - it could account for the most breakage even if it made breakage less likely in individual cases.

  • PalMD says:

    your science-fu is powerful...
    this might actually be pretty useful info...
    I wonder with the "type" of intercourse, the anal vs. vaginal, if the no's are the same as the proportion of vag to anal intercourse, but of course, too late to find out.

  • MRW says:

    The one significant flaw in the survey is that there was no controlling for the percentage of the time that an activity takes place.
    For example, I assume that anal sex is less common than vaginal sex, so the comparative number of breaks doesn't tell you much. If anal sex is infrequent enough, you might end up with these survey results even if condoms break a large % of the time during it.
    You didn't make that comparison, but the same could be said for your other comparisons. You find that more breaks occur during "high athleticism" sex than during "low athleticism" sex, but you can't know whether athleticism level affects condom breakage without knowing the % of sex that is high or low athleticism.
    Likewise, you can't know how lubrication affects breakage without knowing how common each type of lubrication is. If people tend to add lubrication on the outside but not the inside, then your results could still be completely in line with the hypothesis you mention.

  • Jdhuey says:

    Having been celibate (not by choice) for the last few years, all I can say is: How can I become a statistic in future surveys?

  • Matt M says:

    To become a statistic in the future: Practice, man, practice.

  • Scicurious says:

    llewelly: excellent point! I didn't think of that.
    Tine: I was comparing the number of breaks with "anal, low athleticism", to "anal, high athleticism". I don't want to compare between anal and vaginal intercourse, the numbers are way too low for that.
    MRW: Yeah, next time I really need to assess frequency and type of intercourse, unfortunately I only got ten questions. As well as frequency of certain lubrication types...perhaps next survey...
    Jdhuey: Hey, they aren't ALL about sex. Ok, well, most of them are. 🙂 But you never know, I could do masturbation next! Or something else that could be non-sex related. Stay tuned.

  • King Hussein says:

    Now try this survey on people that have sex with other people. Your sample population is mostly animal lovers and toy abusers.

  • mandrake says:

    About fishing for condoms (anecdotal and therefore useless info, but interesting):
    A friend of mine had a condom disappear altogether during sex, then found it, completely inside her vagina, the next time she had sex... two days later.
    She was pretty horrified (which is why I heard about it).

  • siris says:

    I honestly would love to see the raw data on this from your so-called "spreadsheet from hell". I actually spend a lot of time working with spreadsheets at work and I've written a few macros for data analysis.
    I would like to make an attempt at determining breakage frequency as related to condom brand. If you wouldn't mind sending me a copy of the data I would be more than happy to share my results if successful. You can pull my email from the form here I suppose. I understand if you would prefer I do not publicize my findings as it might be bad press for any particular brand that might have a higher frequency.

  • Now, now, now! You know Dr. Isis's rule is to never have to apologize for a slide.
    Nice work, Sci. These are pretty interesting results!

  • phildo says:

    You scientists! Always thinking about SEX!
    Trouble making graphs in Excel? I thought
    that was what it was made for.

  • leigh says:

    excel totally blows when it comes to graphing. prism ftw. interesting results, as i expected! i think it would be cool to do some normalizing like siris talks about. n=270, that's a sizable amount of data!

  • Brian says:

    This is a nice demonstration of the unreliability of surveys. Lubrication was high outside and low inside because I am a stud and of course she was really wet. Riiiight.

  • Tony Jeremiah says:

    Normally, I use a super fancy graphing program that I'm pretty good at, so Excel often baffles me.
    Do you use SPSS?
    And I'd really kill to see which ones were correlated with the most breaks. Sigh...another day, another survey. Perhaps I will be able to do that cross-correlation when I have a full day to spend on it. Or not.
    A quick Google search ( Condom failure studies ) seems to suggest breaks are more due to user behavior (covered in your survey) than product quality. The first search result seems to contain a fairly comprehensive (looks like several chapters) on condom failure.

  • Sarah says:

    Regarding mandrake's comment re the lost condom, I'm curious: if it disappears during the sex, it's not on the bed/floor/whatever, can't be found, isn't that the obvious place? Wouldn't you at least check? How did that not occur to her?

  • Scicurious says:

    Tony: I'm a Prizm person myself. Excel gives me major problems with labeling of figure legends in pie charts.
    Thanks for the link to the study!!! I will check it out. Perhaps we shall rehash this topic in a few months or so. Stay tuned!

  • mandrake says:

    Sarah -
    In her defense, we were in high school.
    OTOH, I also had to explain to her the problem with trying to sleep with men who had been drinking too much. Seems it never occurred to her that the penis was not like a water faucet. Turn on, turn off.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Great job. This is a seminal study!

  • Clemens says:

    Very important point as well: "Normal" oil, shampoo or showering gel can cause the condom to decompose, making a break much more likely.

  • Interesting. Obviously followup work is going need to be done in a more controlled fashion. I suspect that the scienceblog readers as a whole are more likely to practice safe sex and to use condoms correctly given that the readership is generally fairly left-wing and fairly educated. This could easily impact the question about fit and the question about how the problem was resolved. More indirectly this could impact what sort of breaks were most common.

  • Danielle Rudder says:

    As a researcher who recently has been assigned the analysis of a very large (100+ questions) survey using Survey Monkey, I laughed out loud at your description of the raw data being in an "Excel spreadsheet from hell." You are NOT kidding. Except that my data presents in a family of 9 separate Excel spreadsheets from hell....

  • Sarah says:

    Hi all, Scicurious asked me to post some comments I made in an e-mail:
    I really would have thought that causes of breakage would have been looked at before! I am a working girl and have heaps of experience here so thought I would mention my experiences where I think relevant:
    Re. #2: the usual outcome of a breakage is that the majority peels back and collects/slouches around the base of the penis (imagine that you push your socks right down to the ankle. Kind of like that). Of course it is possible that with a partner who gave a damn rather than being an asshole, they would stop immediately after it broke and tell you, and the nature of the condom damage would be less than what I actually get in reality: they don't tell you it broke, they keep going, if you are on your game you notice but by that time it is gathered around the base, probably by the continuation of movement.
    Re. #3: was very surprised to see you apparently inferring that high lube outside, low lube inside breakage numbers implied that the reverse state did not raise the likelihood of breakage. I imagine (please chime in here especially as American habits could potentially be different in this regard) that using lots of lubricant inside the condom and little of it on the outside would be quite rare. A group of people would use it on the outside: some of these people would also use it on the inside.
    However, of the group of people who do not use lube on the outside, I would imagine that there is no subgroup who put it on the inside only.
    The lubrication state in which most breaks occurred (high outside low inside) is in fact what I would have expected to be one of the most common states overall during sex using condoms and hypothetically, if breaks were completely random and unrelated to lubrication, you would still expect to see this lubrication category at the top of the list (assuming I'm correct about most people using lube on the outisde but not inside). Basically, to assume the proportions of breakages occurring in different lubrication states reflect how these lubrication conditions affect the likelihood of a breakage, is invalid unless you assume that sex in all four lubrication states occurs at equal rates. If low outside, high inside lubrication intercourse were occurring for say only 1.5% of intercourse, then the 11.4% breakage rate would be entirely consistent with the author hypothesis! Speaking from personal experience lubrication absolutely affects breakage. If you use no lube then a condom will break within a short time frame, if you reapply lubricant whenever necessary it will last longer before it breaks (all other things being equal).
    As an aside, if you do a further survey, the type of lubricant used might be interesting. K-Y Jelly is the absolute worst lubricant: it dries you out and the condom will break very quickly (unless you add more K-Y within a couple of minutes, that will dry you out even more quite fast, so you have to add more, it's a nasty cycle). Any nurse or doctor who works at a sexual health clinic could probably confirm this, they usually have a recommended brand (in NZ WetStuf).
    Re. #4: I think again you are ignoring the possibility that the different bar sizes reflects the amount of that type of sex! I'm not saying that 50% of sex is high athleticism vag and 37% of it is low athleticism vag. But you just don't know. For example I believe anal sex is more likely to lead to breaks, correct? (don't offer that service myself, I am speaking as much from my biology background as from working in the sex industry) Yet anal sex is only 7% of breaks in your study. Probably because anal sex was not engaged in as much or by as many couples as vaginal sex was, right? So the proportion of breaks attributed to different types of sex is not meaningful unless you know also the proportion of those different types of sex occurring.
    Re. #8: just a comment that some people may have responded in a misapprehension about the question, like I did: I thought the question was asking about space left in the reservoir after the break (i.e. I look at it, oh no it's broken, was there any space left in at that point?). It was always impossible to tell with my breaks but I thought that could possibly occur with lesser breaks (unlike my experience, which is always of the whole thing gathered around base of penis).

  • Very good written story. It will be valuable to anybody who utilizes it, as well as me. Keep up the good work - for sure i will check out more posts.

Leave a Reply