Remember that 1995 Seinfeld episode in which Elaine frantically stockpiles Today Sponges right before they’re about to go off the market? Well, more than a decade later, the sponge is finally back! And this time around, there are a few more reasons to care.
Production of the over-the-counter polyurethane spermicidal sponge halted owing to a production problem, not, as many people assumed, because of something wrong with the sponge itself. Allendale Pharmaceuticals bought marketing and manufacturing rights back in 1998; for the past eight months, Today Sponges have been quietly trickling into retail and online stores: first Walgreens and Drugstore.com, then more recently CVS, Rite Aid, and Amazon.com, and they’re arriving at Target and Wal-Mart this summer.
Watching that show as two young women fresh out of college who planned on having sex with various young men but were terrified of STDs, we couldn’t understand why a single woman in this city wouldn’t be using condoms. But now that we’re both in long-term relationships, we can definitely see the sponge’s appeal. Recent studies have shown that the birth-control pill can sap some women’s libidos long-term, and the patch may cause life-threatening blood clots. Besides, using condoms as thirtysomethings in LTRs just seems a bit anachronistic.
Now that the sponge is readily available, Allendale—which has only six people on staff—might consider hiring Lulu, a 21-year-old Hudson Valley college student, to get the word out. “I passionately love the sponge!” she says. “It’s safe, economical [about $2.50 a pop], reliable, easy to use, and allows for spontaneity.” The sponge can be worn for up to 30 hours, and the wearer can have intercourse as many times as she likes during the first 24 hours, without any reapplication of spermicide (unlike a diaphragm).
Although Lulu’s just a spring chicken, most of the Today Sponge users in New York whom we spoke with had a bit more experience under their belts. “Our target market is women 30 or older in monogamous relationships,” says Gene Detroyer, president and CEO of Allendale. “When we conducted research to determine who our ideal audience was, we found that 77 percent of women 35 and older do not want to use hormonal contraception.”
And that’s the major concern for most sponge users we talked with. “The Pill wrecked my skin, made me feel bloated, and changed the texture of my hair,” says M.G., an “old school” sponge user who’s thrilled about its comeback. Beth, a new mother who was on the Pill pre-pregnancy but who’s been using the sponge while breast-feeding, says, “Now that I have been off the hormones for almost two years, I’m not sure I ever want to go back to putting those chemicals in my body again.”
Efficacy was the other major concern. The sponge claims 91 percent, when used properly by women who’ve never been pregnant; that sounds kind of measly compared with the Pill’s near-perfect 99.7 percent, or condoms’ 98 percent. Detroyer takes issue with that last statistic (which we quoted from Planned Parenthood), saying, “No way are condoms that effective,” and quickly points out that 91 percent efficacy for the sponge translates into one instance of pregnancy for every 1,200 to 1,500 acts of intercourse—which definitely has a better ring to it.
And its flexibility is still its biggest selling point. One woman we spoke with, a 38-year-old consultant from New Jersey who’s been married for five and a half years, seemed like the quintessential sponge user—that is, until she mentioned her husband’s vasectomy. “Well, we decided to have a threesome with a very close male friend whom we both trust, so I bought some sponges for that fun occasion!”
That story alone was almost enough to make converts of us (“We’ll have what she’s having!”). But Em, who’s never been very “hands on” down there, thinks she’ll stick with her Pill for now—besides, she likes what it does for her skin. Lo, on the other hand, who’s crazy enough without the added hormones, has become an Elaine disciple. But we’re both still keeping our fingers crossed for the male birth-control pill.