I am the 23-year-old CEO of a condom company.
I am also a fighter against societal-wide discrimination against my product.
I fully intended to take on the first role. The second one caught me by surprise.
It all began when I was out to dinner with my girlfriends, and I found myself recounting an absurd experience I just had buying tampons. As I told my friends, the deli clerk had to retrieve them from a shelf behind the register, and they were so high up that he had to grab them with an orange-picking claw. Pretty soon all of us were recounting our embarrassing experiences buying products that were actually important to our health and wellness.
Suddenly, the entire table realized that purchasing condoms was the most uncomfortable purchase of all. Even my most confident and presumably empowered girlfriends admitted to not being prepared with condoms in the heat of the moment because of this.
The next day I became an entrepreneur and created my own business: Lovability Inc.
As a graduate student at New York University studying design for social innovation, I saw this as an opportunity to redesign women’s experience acquiring, carrying and providing condoms so that more women would be likely to be prepared. I started by overhauling the traditional packaging, messaging and distribution of condoms. Lovability Premium Condoms resemble a chic cosmetic product. They are introduced to women as a positive symbol of self-love: because a woman who loves herself makes her sexual health a priority. They are now available in beauty supply stores, lingerie stores and accessory boutiques.
But being a young female entrepreneur selling such a taboo product is incredibly difficult. Thanks to years of marketing, condoms have taken on masculine, dominant and hypersexual stereotypes that many women and men don't necessarily want to associate with.
Every day I stare these stereotypes straight in the eye.
I’ve endured criticism and rejection as shop owners slam doors in my face. Even store owners who sell kinky items have rejected my product. It’s upsetting that we live in a world where we can celebrate so many aspects of our sexuality, but safe sex has yet to become en vogue. Each time this stigma presents a challenge though, I’m even more motivated to stay true to my mission and bring condoms into a desirable and positive context.
The most shocking rejection I’ve received so far was when Chase Bank recently refused to process payments for my online store.
My mouth dropped open when I received this email: “I wanted to let you know that we actually will not be able to move forward regarding processing with Chase Paymentech, as processing sales for adult-oriented products is a prohibited vertical. I apologize for the confusion and wish you and your growing brand the best of luck in the future.”
Condoms -- in the “prohibited adult” category? This was ridiculous. I felt like Chase Bank had just slammed the door of one of their solid metal vaults in my face. Talk about a barrier to success.
The news that Chase Bank was refusing to process payments for Lovability Inc. was astounding for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was devastated to see that those in power were promoting the stigma against condoms. It’s terrifying that large corporations can then dictate our access to important sexual health products. I responded to her email voicing a variety of concerns.
“I am deeply saddened and quite surprised by this. There is nothing 'naughty' about my company's mission of empowering women to take responsibility for their sexual health. Also, if condoms were taken out of the 'adult' category, perhaps more teenage women would feel comfortable being prepared with them. This would prevent the 300,000+ unwanted teenage pregnancies that happen in America each year. What other products are included in the adult-oriented category? Where do you draw the line? Also, does your company hold themselves to these values elsewhere? Are people not allowed to buy condoms with CHASE credit/debit cards from the grocery store?”
My Chase representative responded with empathy, explaining that she understood the irrationality of the rejection. Though she was “fully supportive of my company’s mission,” Chase Bank considered my company’s product a reputational risk.
More hypocrisy emerged when CNBC pointed out that Chase Bank handles Trojan’s mergers and acquisitions. Did they reject my company because they were uncomfortable with a female-centric condom brand?
Days later, in response to the bad press, the CMO of Chase Paymentech called me to apologize for the “misunderstanding.” She agreed to process my company’s payments but would not agree to officially remove condoms from the “prohibited adult” category. I felt as if she was attempting to pacify me but was not taking the issue-at-large seriously.
The majority of comments on our petition have pointed out that Chase’s ability to pass judgment calls on what we can buy and sell is a breach of everyone’s rights, and it’s an especially sensitive issue when they violate our access to sexual health products.
We cannot allow any large corporations like Chase bank to get away with governing our ability to take responsibility for our sexual health. And we cannot allow these outdated and destructive attitudes go unnoticed anywhere in our society. Instead, we must reject all of the stereotypes that contribute to negative perception of condoms, so that they become part of a positive conversation and are removed from the “naughty” category once and for all.
Because these attitudes trickle down.
My company offers one program that allows sorority girls the opportunity to sell Lovability Condoms on campus and raise money for philanthropy. Entire chapters have decided to use Lovability to fundraise, however, in multiple cases the National Sorority’s executive staff advised the sisters to avoid selling Lovability because they considered it bad for their reputation to be associated with condoms. This old-school attitude is a threat to our health. One in four college women suffer from STDs.
It’s my mission to encourage everyone to set a positive example for our generation and future generations by standing up for our rights to access sexual health products. Also, when we do have access, we need to celebrate the empowerment that comes from being prepared.
Enough with the stigmatization of condoms in our society. Let's stop apologizing for safe sex.