WEDNESDAY, Jan. 23, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Try it, you'll like it -- probably more than you think.
With or without a condom, Americans find sex very satisfying, according to a new study that took a peek into the bedrooms of men and women, straight and gay.
"There's this commonly held belief that condom use makes sex feel less natural or pleasurable," said study lead author Debby Herbenick, associate research scientist and co-director for the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University in Bloomington. "But when people use them, sex happens to be great."
The study, published Jan. 23 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that in a nationally representative sample of men and women aged 18 to 59, ratings of sex were high, with few differences based on condom or lubricant use. No significant differences were found in men's ability to have erections with or without condoms or lubricants.
Why do condoms seem to get such a bad rap? "There's obviously a power element at play, or everybody would be using a condom," said Dr. Jill Rabin, chief of ambulatory care, obstetrics and gynecology, at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "It's a macho thing: You take care of it, you're my possession."
But Rabin, who was not involved with the study, said she thinks it's a myth that men hate to use condoms. "Lots and lots of men like them. The women who don't like them feel it decreases sensation and sensitivity," she said.
Lubricants also are underestimated for their ability to improve sex, said Herbenick. And women of any age may misinterpret the need to use a lubricant as an indication of non-arousal. "I knew a 26-year-old woman who said she dreaded pulling out lubricant," said Herbenick. "She said there needs to be a website that says, 'Younger women need lubricant, too.'"
Women who experience vaginal dryness after menopause can also feel frustrated, seeing the need for a lubricant as a sad sign of aging.
"But one-third of American women experience the need for lubricants," said Herbenick. "Now, in the last five to seven years on TV, lubes are talked about as related to pleasure and excitement."
The study tapped data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, which includes the sexual experiences and condom-use behaviors of 5,865 Americans.
Randomly selected households reflecting the U.S. population at large were recruited through a series of mailings and follow-up phone calls. When individuals agreed to participate, they were provided Internet access and computer hardware, if needed, to take an online questionnaire.
Participants were asked to report on their most recent sexual event in the last year and the behaviors associated with it, such as performing or receiving oral sex, and vaginal and anal intercourse. They were also asked information about their partners, including gender, and whether the other person was a spouse or domestic partner, girlfriend or boyfriend, friend, new acquaintance or "transactional sex partner" (prostitute).
Participants also were queried about condom use, including type (latex, polyurethane, or other) and whether the condom was lubricated. They were asked if lubrication was used and, if so, the type and where it was applied. They were also asked to rate their most recent sexual event in terms of their perceptions of pleasure, arousal and whether they or their partner experienced orgasm.
While other studies have looked at attitudes toward condoms, this is the first to focus on Americans, said Herbenick.
In addition to the findings about sexual pleasure from condoms and lubricants, the study found that women were less able to identify what material the condom was made of than men: about 24 percent of women were unsure versus 9 percent of men. This was probably because men typically purchase condoms, said the study authors.
Not knowing the type of condom used has health implications for both partners. Water-based lubricants are safer to use with condoms, while oil and petroleum-based products can cause latex to deteriorate, explained Rabin.
Knowing what people do and do not know about condoms and lubricants shows health educators what they need to teach, said Herbenick.
"We continue to have high rates of sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies and HIV, and people's attitudes are part of the problem," she said.
The key to helping people understand the benefits of condoms and lubricants is education, Herbenick said.
Learn how condoms help prevent sexually transmitted diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.