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The Weird and Worrying History of Birth Control

In the age of the condom and the contraceptive pill, it's easy to forget the crazy things your ancestors tried to avoid pregnancy. Sometimes, the ideas came from women, but most from men. Many seem to modern people of either sex to be more like instruments of torture than anything else. Take a deep breath and prepare to discover the wacky, weird, and downright worrying ways our ancestors attempted birth control.

 

Magical Methods

The earliest efforts to avoid pregnancy were magical spells, potions, and incantations. Amulets made of earwax were considered effective. Keeping the testicles of a weasel in your pocket was another solution.

Other recommendations were a cat's bones, bat droppings, and drinking the water from a blacksmith's forge. Dancing backward seven times after sex was popular for a time. Strangely enough, none of these methods worked.

 

Barriers to Success

The contraceptive diaphragm is a recognised and popular birth control solution. But simple barrier methods go back to ancient times. Some of the things that women tried out might surprise you.

Crocodile excrement was popular in ancient Egypt. Curiously, the high acid content of crocodilian poop suggests there may have been more than madness in the method. A similar solution was used in Africa, although the preferred excretion was that of elephants.  Other inserts included wool, bamboo sheets, linen, sponges, and silk.

Until relatively recently some men encouraged women to use wooden blocks. A chunk of wood inserted in the vagina was an idea conceived by Victorian (male) doctors. It was finally outlawed in America in the 1930s.

 

The High Price of Mercury

While trace quantities of certain metals such as zinc, copper, and iron are necessary for good nutrition, consuming metallic substances is not a good idea. Even more so when that metal is a potent poison. Just the fumes from mercury can cause brain damage. But that didn't stop women in ancient China from drinking the stuff as birth control. 

It worked. Perhaps it worked too well, as it causes sterility. Add to that the serious risk of brain damage, kidney failure, and outright death and it's a wonder the practice persisted. When mercury wasn't available, women would sometimes use lead, with equally deleterious effects.

 

A Selection of Old Condoms

The earliest reference to anything like a condom comes from Homer's epic poem "The Iliad". Homer recounts how the Cretan King, Minos uses a goat's bladder as a contraceptive. He wraps it around his member before having sex with his queen. Homer clarifies that the King's main concern is to guard his wife against "the serpents and scorpions" in his ejaculation. 

Men have tried all kinds of materials to make condoms. Besides the intestines of various farm animals, linen and even fish bladders have all been used with varying degrees of success. You may be very grateful for the discovery of latex rubber.

 

An Iron-Clad Solution

Most people have heard of a device called a "chastity belt". If you have, you probably associate it with the unenlightened and misogynistic values of medieval Europe. But the truth is chastity belts were most commonly used in the early part of the 19th century, and often voluntarily. 

A chastity belt is an iron or steel girdle, a little like a cage which locks around the hips and between the legs. As a sexual barrier, little could be more effective, uncomfortable as such a thing may have been to wear. In the 1800s chastity belts were manufactured and promoted as devices for women to protect themselves from the unwanted advances of lascivious men.

While marketed at women through the fashion pages of magazines and newspapers, they men often bought them. In the 19th century, a woman was still a man's property in marriage. To many Victorian gentlemen, the chastity belt seemed an ideal solution to the potential problem of adultery.

 

Casanova's Contraceptive of Choice

Casanova, the famed 18th-century Venetian womanizer, favored half a lemon. He didn't use it himself. But there are several accounts of him requesting courtesans to insert the citrus fruit before copulation. Once again, if it was effective, it may be due to the damage the acid juice inflicted on the sperm. Or perhaps he was just kinky.

 

Contraceptive Cola

It wasn't just your distant ancestors whose attempts at birth control might have made you cringe. As recently as 1985 researchers at Harvard University published a paper which suggested that soda pop destroyed semen. Picked up by the popular press, the news started a new contraceptive craze, with the nation's favourite fizzy drink being used not so much to add life as put the brakes on it.

Unfortunately, further research showed that the original paper was scientifically floored. Later studies demonstrated that the "soda solution" was ineffective. That was the end of that.

While fundamental concepts behind the methods have changed little over the years, modern contraceptives are proven, laboratory tested, and certified for healthy use. Educating young men and women about their availability and use has gone a long way toward solving the problems associated with unwanted pregnancies. Contemporary birth control has also played a significant role in the emancipation of women and their freedom to choose their lifestyle.

 

 

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