Ding Dong the Today Sponge is Dead

Okay, this has nothing to do with sex advice but I just cannot let this one go without commenting on it. In my routine readings of sexual health news, I discovered that the company that now owns the 'Today' Sponge has filed for bankruptcy. Woohoo!!!! Why in the world, you might ask, would that make me happy? Well, I hate the Today sponge. I know hate is a strong word but that is how I feel. I truly hate it.

Some women, and even some sexual health care providers think the sponge is great because it's so easy to use and it's great for women who have partners who wouldn't agree to using condoms. And that would be true if it actually was a good alternative.

But here's what I hate about the sponge. First of all, it's nowhere near as effective as other methods. It's actual use effectiveness rate for birth control is somewhere between 84% and 68%, with the lower rate applying to women who have already had children. The actual use effectiveness rate for condoms is 85%, for the pill, it's 92%. So relying solely on the sponge for contraception, is not really a good idea.

The main thing I have against the sponge is the unbelievable amount of non-oxynol 9 it contains. Non-oxynol 9 is a the most commonly used spermicide. It definitely kills sperm but it all kinds of other things. N-9 is an industrial solvent. Should we really be putting a sperm soaked with industrial solvent into our vaginas? I don't think so. I used to be a big proponent of N-9 because I thought it offered women more control and more options for contraception, particularly if they were in situations where they couldn't say no to sex without a condom. But after several studies came out showing the N-9 actually INCREASES a woman's chance of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, I changed my mind. There was a lot of controversy about this to start with, with some studies showing a potential protective effect, but with more studies done, it became clear that women who use products that contain a large dose of N-9, and use them often, have a significantly increased risk of contracting STI's. This is because N-9 is so irritating, that it will cause abrasions in the vaginal tissues that allow bacteria and viruses to enter. The sponge contains the highest amount of N-9 of any spermicidal product on the market, 1000 mg - almost 10 times higher than any other product.

Now I know it can't be proved that the sponge causes STI's, but I do think the evidence should give us all cause for concern. When Allendale Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to the sponge and began re-introducing it to the North American market in 1999, I wrote to their marketing director and asked if they had any plans to include the information about the clinical studies and risks in their packaging. He, of course, said no. He told me that the packaging clearly states that the sponge does not prevent STI's and that is sufficient. I pointed out that there is a big difference between not preventing STI's and helping to cause them and that perhaps a company that is planning to market a product that contains the largest dose of N-9 on the market should clue women into the fact that large doses of N-9 have been shown to increase the risk of contracting STI's. He did not agree. What about women who have HIV+ partners? Shouldn't they know this? What about women who have lots of partners or work in the sex trade? Shouldn't they know this?

In searching for more information on the joyous death of the sponge, I discovered that the company that bought the sponge from Allendale, Synova, had just begun a multi-million-dollar re-branding campaign to boost sales of the sponge, before they declared bankruptcy. They put out a 'hip' website and redesigned the package, to try to grab women's attention.

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from last summer:
Barry Schmader, executive vice president and creative director of Synova’s advertising agency, Dudnyk, of Horsham, Pa., said the new colors and graphics were chosen to create “high impact” and to help the Today Sponge compete on store shelves, especially with condoms. “We need to stand out on the contraceptive shelf space and compete for presence,” he said

The idea that they wanted the sponge to compete with condoms makes me want to vomit. When given the choice over using condoms or using a sponge, there is no choice. Condoms are much more effective and they provide excellent prevention against most STI's. The sponge has a poorer effectiveness rate and provides no protection, may even increase the risk, for STI's. The fact that they launched a marketing campaign to try to get women to buy sponges instead of condoms is unbelievable to me. If women want to use the sponge as a backup method to other contraceptives, that's fine, but they are no replacement for condoms. Women don't get enough information on how contraceptives really work and what the best options are in the first place. The last thing we need is more marketing designed to make up our minds for us!

So I celebrate the death of the Today Sponge. Clearly, several companies have felt that there was enough profit potential in it for them to invest ridiculous amounts of money in, so I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we see it again.