Sex Questions from the Twittersphere: Why is Spermicide illegal in SF?

[We barely missed this question posted on Twitter yesterday while “Tweeting with the Queen”. Carol was gracious to answer it anyway, what a gal! – ed.]

Question: Why is spermicidal lubricant illegal in San Francisco?

I don’t think spermicidal lube is illegal, per se, in San Francisco, but it is no longer being recommended or distributed by any of the organizations with a stake in safer sex education or AIDS prevention; in fact, it’s usually actively recommended against. Here’s why:

In the 1980s researchers discovered that spermicides like nonoxynol-9, the most commonly used one, killed HIV and other viruses in vitro — that is, in the lab, in a test tube. Everyone rushed to recommend it as a means of protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted bugs, and many lube companies put out a version with n-9. But “in vitro” and “in vivo” — in real life — sometimes yield different research results, and in the early/mid-1990s research began to emerge from in vivo trials in Africa that not only did spermicidal lubricant not prevent HIV in the populations being studied, but in fact seemed to make it more likely that an uninfected person would become infected. The first study I heard about was conducted among prostitutes, and they were being given only germicides to use, not condoms as well — it’s thought that the higher infection rate in this case was due to the fact that n-9 is a harsh material (it is, in fact, a detergent), and that it abraded the vaginal mucosa of these women enough that other bugs like HIV found it easier to take hold. Once this information circulated within the public health world and among other HIV activists and educators, use of the spermicide became not a recommended panacea but a cause for concern. (Plenty of outrage was also expressed against using humans as guinea pigs in this way.)

Good Vibrations was actually a leader in removing nonoxynol-9 lubes from circulation, because I attended an international AIDS conference in Amsterdam the year the African study was released, heard about it, and brought the news home. Some women still use spermicides with condoms or diaphragms for pregnancy prevention, but even this must be considered carefully — if she’s sensitive to the substance and at all at risk for sexually transmitted conditions (and if she’s sexually active, it’s always possible that she might be), a woman should probably avoid this combo. (This may be even more important for people using germicidal lubes for anal sex, since the rectal mucosa is even more delicate, and probably more easily irritated, than vaginal.)

Condoms, used carefully, are close to as effective with non-spermicidal lube as with nonoxynol-9. The main point of the lube is to serve as a back-up if the condom breaks, and if it doesn’t, it’s a best-case scenario.

So a condom care refresher: don’t use expired ones; don’t carry them in a purse, pack, or other place their wrappers might be pierced or torn; don’t store them in a hot place (like your car’s glove compartment, or in your wallet); be careful taking them out of the wrapper especially if you have jewelry, long nails, or snags on your cuticles that might break the condom as you handle it; and never use an oil-based lube with a latex condom.



Related Products at Good Vibrations:

Condom, Dental Dam, Gloves


Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at

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