Let’s celebrate the contraception revolution
Remember the days when Tony Abbott spoke more freely on his views about the sinfulness of modern society? Sometimes I wonder if he misses those happier times when he was free to be “the mad monk”, deploring the “condom culture”.
And his long lost opinions were just part of a chorus of conservative leaders and pro-life organisations who believe that easily accessible and effective contraception is ruining sex, as it means that couples don’t give themselves completely to each other.
But even the most cursory glances at history shows that contraception and sex have gone hand in hand since the earliest civilizations, long before the luxury and ease of hormonal and latex methods.
Here’s some of the clever ways that women controlled their fertility through the ages, from the beginnings of civilization to the arrival of the pill in the 20th century – forget the accusation of modern women trying to mess with God’s plan: Finding protection against STDs and pregnancy is part of human history.
Like a tiny shower for your cervix, these squirtable tubes were used by women in the 1800’s in the western world, with the intention of flushing out sperm from the cervix to avoid pregnancy or STDs. Even though the douche syringe has survived to this day it’s one of the far less effective ways, and always was, with doctors warning that in fact it can do damage by flushing bacteria around, risking infection. Incidentally the term “douche” originated in the 1960’s, making the modern-day insult feel a little old-fashioned.
In the 19th Century the modern diaphragm with its fairly un-scary utilisation and friendly cap-like appearance was decades away, as was the hygienic and gentle rubber it would eventually end up being made of. “Womb veils”, as they were known, were made by pretty much anything would stay tucked into a cervix, including lemon halves and cedar resin. With the arrival of the modern diaphragm, acquiring the right sized diaphragm required the distinctly unsexy aid of a doctor, and was very hit or miss if you tried to work it out yourself.
A combination of a sponge and poison, vaginal sponges were about one inch square, and in the 19th century it was soaked in brandy as a spermicide before use, and had a silk cord or a twisted thread attached for easy removal, in ancient times before any official kind of spermicide was available women used natural spermicides like lemons – women used to soak a sponge in lemon juice, then apply it. You’d just want to hope that you hadn’t accidentally gotten any internal scratches recently.
First used in 1909, the Intra-Uterine Device was another of those complicated forms of contraception that falls into the category of things that doctors had to spend a lot of time retrieving out of their patients. Even to this day, they remain the most effective non-hormonal contraception. These stringy bastards did a similar job to the diaphragm, except they plugged up the fallopian tubes. So this was sort of like letting the enemy in at the front gate, then trapping them in the foyer until they starved to death.
Charles Goodyear invented the “vulcanization of rubber” in 1839, with the first rubber condom appearing in 1844, and beginning a slow progression to what is today still the most effective protection from pregnancy and birth control. But before this they were still using condoms made of animal intestines, leather and tortoise shell. During the 16th century, scientist Gabriele Falloppio recommended using cloth sheaths as contraceptives. The sheaths needed to be soaked in a chemical solution before being dried and worn during an intimate intercourse – a distinctly more pre-meditated style of condom than today’s luxurious product.
The contraceptive pill was not just a part of the Women’s Movement, it was a revolution in itself.
For a woman to be completely in control of her fertility was a major shift in the historical strata, and the incredible ease and luxury of using a distinctly un-terrifying looking condom was light years away from having to painstakingly wrap a penis in gauze for hours.
We live in a time where sex is distinctly less impeded than in the centuries proceeding us: perhaps it’s time to celebrate this.
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