Is LELO’s Re-Engineered HEX Condom Safer or More Dangerous Than Your Regular Latex Condom?
In the summer of 2016, LELO, the Swedish company you probably know from their super sleek, sophisticated vibrating sex toys, released a new product: the HEX condom. The big PR campaign, widely reported in the online media, touted HEX as the “world’s first re-engineered condom,” and “the first major innovation of the condom in 70 years”. Specifically, while this was still a latex condom, its novel hexagonal structure was advertised to increase both the grip of the condom and its resistance to tearing, therefore offering three unique benefits in promoting safer sex practices over standard latex condoms: less slippage, more pleasure, and less breakage.
This third claim caught the eye of pretty much anyone who saw LELO’s dramatic demonstration of HEX’s superior breakage-resistance: LELO’s striking “pin test” (see the video below). It also drew sharp criticism from the sex blogger and sex educator community.
As you can see for yourself, the pin test implied that HEX’s hexagonal structure allows the condom to tear in one area (actually, dozens of areas) without completely bursting. This could be — and I assume LELO was expecting it would be — seen as a safety benefit: The partially torn condom would continue to provide some protection against STIs and pregnancy over a regular condom which typically sort of explodes when it breaks, no longer offering any protection whatsoever.
At the same time, however, this “partial protection” could also be seen as a serious safety drawback. Lorax of Sex, a popular sex blogger, describes the issue:
“While it sucks to have a condom break, the way in which they break acts as, whether intentionally or not, a red flag system. The shattering of the condom means you know that your barrier has failed and that you now need to take steps to address the situation- emergency contraception, STI testing, post-exposure STI prophylaxis (where applicable and available), implementation of barrier methods with otherwise fluid-bonded partners, whatever an instance of exposure means to you. The manner in which Hex fails, however, means the sex act can be completed and there be no sign that there was a breech [sic] of security.”
This sounds alarming. Many people (sex educators and otherwise) read Lorax’s criticisms and unconditionally accepted that HEX was, as one sex educator tweeted at me, “a dangerous product,” and supposedly more dangerous than regular condoms.
In fact, a number of people criticized me on social media for continuing to promote HEX and support LELO (with whom I’d had a partnership agreement for some time) in light of their “dangerous” and “careless” practices. (And also in light of their choice of Charlie Sheen as a poster child for their HEX campaign, but more on that later.)
But while Lorax’s criticisms of HEX did bring up valid potential safety issues, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this actually made HEX less safe than regular condoms. Unlike most sex educators today, I’m also a sex researcher with a science-based PhD (in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University). As such, I try to remain neutral to the emotional and moralistic reactions about the world of sex in favor of hard evidence, objectivity, and academic peer-reviewed articles. So I did what any scientist would do in this situation: Talked to LELO about their condom, looked for relevant published studies, and, when I failed to find any, collected some data of my own (unofficial and unpublished, but it will have to do for the time being).
So I’d like to use this opportunity to tell you what I’ve learned in the process, and get as close as we can get at this point to answering the question: “Is HEX less safe than standard condoms when it comes to preventing STIs and unwanted pregnancies?”
In order to know for sure, we’d need a well-controlled study where we had couples consistently use either only HEX or only regular condoms for a while (like, at least a year) and then we measured the rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies in each group. Such study has not thus far been published (in the academic literature or by LELO). So we have to rely on knowledge we do have: On how condoms work and how humans behave when using them.
Ok, so let’s break this down.
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 men; 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.
HEX vs. Standard Condoms: The Verdict
If the argument against Hex is that its ability to withstand a small tear makes people less likely to take steps to mitigate the risks from exposure due to the tear, the counterarguments are that most people don’t notice a standard condom breaking until more exposure to and transmission of germs and sperm has occurred than with a slightly torn HEX, and often don’t take any action to address the situation. Given this reality of how most people have sex, the benefits of HEX (the greater reduction in initial exposure to germs/sperm) may far outweigh its costs (negative health consequences due to failure to do post-exposure damage control).
Of course, until that well-controlled study of STI and unwanted pregnancy rates among couples using only HEX vs. only standard condoms is conducted, we won’t know for sure. But all available evidence considered, it seems to me that HEX’s purported ability to withstand small tears may prove safer than a regular condom, at best; just as safe as a regular condom, at worst.
But Forget About All of This; the Pin-Prick Test is Actually Irrelevant to Real Life Sex??
When I first heard about the criticisms of HEX levied by sex bloggers, I got in touch with LELO to ask for their opinion on the matter. I never shared my thoughts on it (i.e. all of the stuff I just wrote about above), but expected their answer would go along those same lines. What I heard back was actually somewhat surprising. It seems that we all misunderstood — or were misled to believe — what the pin prick test was trying to demonstrate. And that neither the worries people had about HEX nor my critical analysis and data collection in response to those worries are relevant. As LELO representatives said to me in an email:
“there is little to no chance of damage going unnoticed — the individual hexagonal cells that make up HEX™ do not “contain” damage inside them, as some outlets have reported. Instead, they are designed to keep the condom extra strong right up to the point of breakage, and then break as normal… The pin test used in the promo campaign is only relevant to scenarios when someone might actually use a pin or a needle to poke holes in the condom, and not relevant to regular intercourse scenarios where there is no foul play.”
In other words, according to LELO, it appears that compared to regular condoms, HEX is more resistant to (i.e., capable of containing) only actual pin or needle pricks, NOT the types of tears that happen during regular vaginal or anal penetration. When your typical “tear during sex” happens, HEX, just like other condoms, will burst open disintegrating and making it very obvious that it has broken. So, unless you have reasons to fear your partner might be intentionally sabotaging your condoms, the pin prick test isn’t particularly relevant to your sex life either way.
So what was the pin prick test all about? According to LELO representatives:
“The much-discussed pin test was used in the promo campaign primarily to engage an audience, to get people talking by driving debate and interest. Given people’s lack of expectations and enthusiasm for condoms as a whole, brought about by 70 years of inertia in the category, our pin test promo was a way to make people engage with our broader arguments on the design of the condom itself.
In a heavily restricted and stagnant category, having a superior product is not enough in itself. You have to find new ways to present your difference, to snatch a moment of your audience’s attention, and the pin-test served to achieve just that.”
In other words, it was a publicity stunt. And one that, according to LELO, was quite successful:
“The launch of LELO’s HEX™ condoms showed the world that there was a real thirst, a real desire, for innovation and newness in condoms. The success of its launch and the positivity about it in the mainstream media helped to prove what we already suspected: that safe sex would be more common if it was given the respect it deserved.
The launch began a huge online debate about condoms and HEX™ raised some real questions, which is exactly what we wanted.”
And indeed, when was the last time we heard this much talk about a condom? Probably not since 2013 when Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced their condom challenge grants.
So there you have it. Seems like LELO is not guilty of making a condom that is more dangerous than regular condoms — if anything, it may prove somewhat safer than regular ones. But they are guilty of misrepresenting (intentionally or unintentionally) what the condom can and cannot do.
How bad is that? That depends, in part, I guess, of how much you believe that the goal justifies the means. Which brings me to yet another issue around HEX and the way it’s been promoted…. Charlie Sheen.
On Charlie Sheen as the Face of the HEX Campaign
Part of the opposition to Hex was due not to the condom itself, but to LELO’s choice of spokesperson for the HEX campaign. From domestic violence, to harassment, to alcohol- and drug-fueled aggression, Charlie Sheen has been accused of a lot of bad things. Even if half of that is true, that makes him a pretty unsavory character who has harmed a lot of people. Why would LELO choose such a person to represent their new safer sex campaign?
Perhaps because they believed it would be an effective marketing move.
There are two ways of looking at this: pragmatic and ideological. If you’re more of an ideologue, the fact that Sheen is a bad person would automatically disqualify him from ever being anything but the recipient of shaming and condemnation. If you’re more of a pragmatist, you might allow that “bad people” can do good things, and argue that giving them the opportunity to do some good might be better than having them do nothing at all.
I’m more of the latter. I don’t like or condone Charlie Sheen’s past behavior. But Sheen can’t take back his bad behavior; all he can do now is make better choices moving forward, choices that can hopefully do some good for the world.
At a time when HIV/AIDS has become a chronic disease we don’t talk about much, more people are ditching condoms, and STI rates in the US are rising, inspiring people to use condoms and raising awareness about safer sex practices is a cause we can all get behind. Regardless of what you think of Sheen as a person, can you name a celebrity who is a better poster child for what NOT to do sexually and the consequences of NOT using a condom?
And as much as the sex education or sex positive communities may dislike Charlie Sheen, there are many people who don’t. Remember, our country just elected “grab ’em by the pussy” Donald Trump for president. Clearly we house folks who don’t care that much about Sheen’s history as a sexual predator, and maybe even see him as a hero because of it. If some of these people saw LELO’s campaign and started using condoms because they didn’t want to end up like Sheen, I’d say some good has been done in the world.
I don’t know how successful LELO was in actually accomplishing this using Sheen’s image. (I certainly hope that they were.) But I strongly believe that we all — sex educators, sex activists, and creators of safer sex products — have the responsibility to try and reach mainstream audiences outside of our sex positive bubbles. Choosing Sheen would not have been my personal choice for how to do this, but I won’t chastise LELO for theirs.
To be fully transparent, HEX is not my favorite condom, but neither is any other latex condom (I prefer to use non-latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms, like Skyn). Still, latex condoms seem to work quite well for most people, and the way I see it, there is no need to reject a potentially good product because we don’t like the campaign or the person who’s helping to sell it. I believe the condom should be judged objectively on its ability to protect the user and meet the claims made by its manufacturer: stronger, grippier, more pleasurable.
Based on all the information available at this point, I have no reason to believe that HEX is any less safe than regular latex condoms. But is it a good product? Better, worse, or no different than other latex condoms? That is something each latex condom user needs to decide for themselves. (And, given that people differ physically and psychologically, this might vary substantially from one person to the next. It might be the ‘best condom ever’ for you, but the ‘worst condom ever’ for your best friend.)
Being a researcher, I can’t help but wonder about people’s experiences with HEX and want to understand it better. To that goal, I’ve created this short, 5-minute, anonymous HEX feedback survey. If you have tried HEX at least once, I encourage you to share your experiences with it. (Once I’ve collected enough responses, I’ll report back, of course, graphs and all.)
Finally, I want to be open about my personal bias towards this issue: LELO used to sponsor me and my work. That’s why I promoted HEX in the first place and also why I went through all this trouble to research and dissect the criticism levied against it. I nonetheless consider myself capable of approaching this issue objectively, and not endorse things I don’t believe in. Indeed, I have never used Sheen’s involvement in any of my campaigns to help raise awareness about the condom, and I never actually endorsed the condom itself — I’ve always promoted it with a call to try it and provide feedback on it. I continue to stand by that position.
(LELO no longer sponsor me, for reasons unrelated to HEX; we now maintain a standard affiliate relationship. If you want to buy HEX or other LELO products while supporting my work, you can use my affiliate link.)
For more information about me or my work, go to drzhana.com. Follow me on all social media as @DrZhana.