Man has throughout his carnal history tried to limit the sometime consequences of sex, namely children. Great minds have devoted themselves to the quest for the perfect contraceptive, their ideas ranging from the highly effective to the unbelievably ineffective.
Celibacy is for many an unattractive alternative to sex, and for these the simplest contraceptive is coitus interruptus. Known to the 240 odd trusting teenagers in Britain having first-time sex each night as “withdrawal”, it is the only contraceptive method mentioned in the bible. Chaucer, the 15th century English poet, puts the Church’s interpretation of Genesis 38, verses 8 to 10 succinctly in The Parson’s Tale. He writes that when men “shedeth hire nature in manere or in place there as a child may nat be conceived…yet it is homicide,” a view which has caused centuries of soul-searching for Roman Catholics.
Others took a different view. Al-Ghazli, the Arab writer, in his book, “Good Manners Concerning Coitus”, recommends it “for cases of financial hardship.” Nearer our own time the same advice has been given by such radical free thinkers as Francis Place, the 19th century champion of contraception.
Originally in favour of complete withdrawal, Place had a change of heart. “The most convenient and easy, as well as the most effectual method is”, he decided, “for the man at the moment of spending to throw himself on his left side by which motion he not only…extricates the part, but gives a slanting direction with respect to the woman, so that being thrown not directly but in a sidelong manner it is perfectly impossible for the womb to receive it.” His children were a fine example of its efficiency – all 15 of them.
For many the willpower required at the crucial moment was sadly lacking. One anonymous author wrote: “How a gentleman…could make a practice, at the moment of unutterable ecstasy, of withdrawing from the arena, is more than I can conceive.” One imagines his poor wife found it only too easy.
Closely related to withdrawal and much favoured by the Chinese is the art of coitus reservatus. Believing that if a man refrained from ejaculation he would enjoy a long life, they tried to follow the example of the Yellow Emperor who, “had intercourse with 1200 women and thereby became immortal.” Mastery of the art took great willpower, and suggestions for training included, “Gnash teeth one thousand times”, “pause nine times after a series of nine strokes”, and “pretend the woman is ugly and hateful.”
Woman whose partners had mastered the art enjoyed an incredible sex life. Marie Stopes, founder of “The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Radical Progress”, wrote of “Male Continence” in the 1920’s. “The union is protracted, and the erection, after being active for a length of time varying from twenty minutes to ten hours, naturally subsides before withdrawal.”
John Humphrey Noyes, a great advocate of “Male Continence”, set up a commune based on it in America. Described in 1848 as a “utopia of obscenity” and an “outgrowth of lust”, the Oneida Commune encouraged free sex and wife sharing. Age, however, seems to have robbed Noyes of the skill, if not the energy, for after his 58th birthday he fathered eight children.
Noyes could have turned to the Chinese for help with his problem. For the semen to “return from the Jade Stalk to the brain,” they said, the woman should, “grasp the testicles tightly at the moment of orgasm”, or less painfully she should apply pressure to the base of the scrotum.
Should the unfortunate girl find her lover less than adept at the techniques, she could gain solace from the wisdom of the ancients. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, says, “After coitus if the woman ought not to conceive, she makes it a custom for the semen to fall outside when she wishes this.” Other great physicians showed how. Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek writer in the first century, says that the woman should, “Immediately get up and sit down with bent knees, and in this position try to provoke sneezes.” Nine centuries later, Rhazes, one of the most celebrated Islamic physicians, elaborated on the advice. “Let the two come apart and let the woman rise roughly, sneeze and blow her nose several times, and call out in a loud voice. She should jump violently backwards seven to nine paces.”
Marie Stopes recommends this “far from secure, yet sometimes successful method,” when the woman has a “domineering ruthless husband who renders her helpless.” Aware of the indignity of leaping around a cold bedroom, to say nothing of disturbing the neighbours, she adopts a much more genteel approach. “Sit up immediately after sex union, and cough very hard with as much muscular contraction of the lower abdomen as possible, followed by immediate urination.”
The idea of dislodging semen is found in many cultures, but it is to the Marquesas islanders in the Pacific that we must look for the most novel approach. A traveller reported that, “when a group of men went out with one woman, and had intercourse with her in rapid succession, publicly, which was a common amusement, the last man had to suck the semen from her vagina.”
Man soon realised that semen was a necessary part of conception, though its exact function remained a mystery for thousands of years. If semen could be kept out of the uterus, he reasoned, pregnancy could be avoided, and so he began to devise suitable barriers, the earliest, and most imaginative being the vaginal pessaries of Egypt.
Discovered in Kahoun in 1889, the Petri Papyrus of 1850 BC lists several pessaries, the most popular of which seems to have been, “crocodile’s dung cut up on auyt-paste.” For those with a sweet tooth there was “one henu of honey. Place in the vagina, this to be done with natron” (naturally occurring sodium carbonate). A henu was equivalent to one pint. The effectiveness of the pessaries can only be guessed at, though a later papyrus, the Ebers of 1550 BC, gives a prescription using the tips of acacia, a plant which produces lactic acid, a powerful spermicide still in use today.
Animal dung is used in pessaries from many cultures. Rhazes describes one made of “cabbage, colocynth pulp, the inner skin of pomegranate, animal’s ear wax, elephant dung and whitewash.” As crocodile and elephant dung can be difficult to obtain, the dung of any awesome creature would do. The Aztec Badianus manuscript of 1552 explains, “and you shall put into the vulva the crushed herb of the calabash or cucurbita root and eagle’s excrement.”
If dung was a powerful contraceptive, how much more effective would be the whole animal? Though no one suggested using a whole elephant, the Aztecs did recommend using the ashes of a dried lizard. According to Pliny the Elder, Olympus, the expert midwife of Thebes, says that, “there is nothing better than to anoint the natural parts of a woman with ox-gall incorporated in the fat of serpents, verdigris and honey.” Its lack of success perhaps accounts for Pliny the Younger.
Pessaries were made by women skilled in the art, the client getting a full refund if the pessary failed to work. Their effectiveness can be judged by the fact that Queen Cleopatra, highly skilled in the use of pessaries and men, had but two children.
Physical as opposed to medicinal barriers were also developed. Designed to be removed after intercourse, they took many forms, the earliest again coming from Egypt in the form of lint tampons soaked in acacia and honey. At the same time, in India and the Far East, they used a ball of soft feathers and metals. By 100 AD, Soranus of Ephesus was recommending wool tampons soaked in wine. Unfortunately he could not decide whether the tampon should be inserted before or after intercourse.
Other physicians also saw contraception as an opportunity to make a name for themselves. Rhazes wrote, “It is necessary to apply to the uterus before receiving the seed, some drug which would block the uterine aperture.” Good advice it was too, until he ruined things by adding, “She should sit upon the tips of her toes and push at her navel with her thumb. It would help if she smelt foul odours.”
Arabian Pharmacologists of 1200 AD looked again to animals for the ultimate contraceptive. “Take the testicle of a wolf,” they proclaimed, “and it must be the right testicle. Rub it with oil, wrap on wool and insert it into the vagina. This would cause her to lose desire and lessen the chance of conception.” As far as the wolves were concerned it certainly worked.
Developing logically from the pessary was the cervical cap. First made of rubber by Dr Freidrick Adolphe Wilde in 1838, the “Dutch Cap” has a long history. Thirteen centuries before Wilde, Aetius of Amida, lacking rubber, used the scooped out half of a pomegranate, while in the 18th century, Casanova himself used half a squeezed out lemon. So impressed with Casanova’s method was Marie Stopes that she included it in her book, “Birth Control Today.”
These methods were difficult to use and destroyed the spontaneity of sex. A less obtrusive alternative had to be found – the condom.
Known to the English as the “French Letter” and to the French as “La Capote Anglaise”, the true origin of the condom remains a mystery. Condoms have been around for over 3500 years. The Egyptians used them as protection against Bilharzia (a disease caused by an aquatic worm which can enter the body through any orifice), the Romans against VD. Though originally made of animal bladders, many materials have been used. Gabrielle Fallopio, the great Italian anatomist, first to describe them in 1564, used linen condoms as protection against syphilis. Though folklore attributes their invention to a Dr Condom at the court of Charles II, the name first appeared in print in a poem of 1716 describing the condom as a “guard against the Harm of Love.” White Kennett’s poem of 1724, “The Machine, or Love’s Preservative”, shows recognition of its true value.
Hear and attend: In CUNDUM’s praise
I sing and thou, O Venus! aid my lays.
By this Machine, secure, the willing Maid
Can taste Love’s Joys, nor is she more afraid
Her Swelling Belly should or squalling brat,
Betray the luscious Pastime she had been at.
Eighteenth century condoms were made from animal bowel, and, judging from a quantity found in 1953, came in a variety of sizes, each tied with a ribbon at the open end. Mrs Philips of London, was the biggest supplier proclaiming in her adverts: “We defy anyone to equal our goods in England.”
Casanova shows that a good deal of pleasure could be had just finding the right size condom. Visiting a brothel he was offered a packed of a dozen. “I put myself in the right position, and ordered her to choose me one that fitted well. Sulkily, she began examining and measuring. ‘This one doesn’t fit well’, I told her. ‘Try another’. Another and another; and suddenly I splashed her well and truly.”
Condom size has been the subject of many debates, and almost caused a diplomatic incident. When first supplied to Thailand, American condoms kept slipping off, much to the dissatisfaction of the Thais. As a result erections were measured in Bangkok massage parlours and in America. The average Asian penis was found to be 5.14 inches long and 4.34 inches in circumference, while Caucasians fared better with 6.0 inches and 5.0 inches. Anxious not to make the same mistake, the Japanese paid volunteers to make agar casts of their erect organs.
A lady with the unfortunate name of Barbara Seaman suggested in March 1978 that American condoms be marketed in three sizes, “Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal, so that men don’t have to ask for small.” More recently, as part of America’s “Condoms for foreigners” programme, condoms were sent to Mexico marked, “Small, Medium and Super Macho”, only the last being taken up.
Surprisingly Marie Stopes disapproved of condoms, though she pointed out that “large elongated balloons” could be had from Woolworth’s. She believed that semen supplied a stimulant to the woman which could, “benefit and nourish their whole system.” Only to newly weds did she recommend the condom as the inexperienced man may be “a little clumsy and thus fail in the proper placement of the ejaculate.” An event which might “cause such revulsion on the part of the Bride that the effect may be lifelong and ineradicable.”
If, as frequently happens, the condom should burst, the woman need not despair. She can turn to the ancient art of douching. In ancient Egypt, douche maids were employed to wash out the vagina with wine, garlic and fennel. Extremely messy and difficult to use, the douche never really caught on, Marie Stopes even describing it as “unreliable, unwholesome ad psychologically harmful.” Its main survival seems to be in the Far East where girls now douche themselves with Diet Coke, making a mockery of the slogan “Coke adds life”.
Permanent sterility is the main alternative to intermittent contraception, and some of the earliest methods of sterilisation can be found amongst the Australian aborigines. In 1894, J.G. Garson, MD, described how 18 year olds were selected from the tribe to undergo the ceremony of Mica. A small incision was made in the front of the scrotum, severing the urethra. Both urine and semen then passed out of the resulting hole. Alternatively, a thin sliver of kangaroo bone was inserted into the urethra at the base of the penis until it emerged at the glans. The urethra was then laid open along the length of the bone. Thanks to modern surgical techniques men are now spared the agonies of Mica, and can undergo vasectomy. Sterilisation being permanent, ways have been sought to help those men who, after surgery, feel a need for more children. One idea which never really caught on was patented on May 8th, 1973 by James M Loe. The “Corporeal Fluid Control Using Bistable Magnetic Duct Valve” was to be implanted on the sperm duct and, by means of a magnet, the user could open or close the valve, thus controlling their sterility.
Less formidable were the sperm banks. In 1972, Science reported the opening of the world’s first in Maryland, USA. The customer, they reported, “strolls into Idant’s small laboratory…fills out a form, and pays 80 dollars for the processing and storage of three samples. He then retreats to a tiny room furnished with a comfortable armchair, two pornographic magazines, and an ashtray.” He can then proceed with vasectomy, a relieved man.
That some people are naturally sterile has been known for centuries. The trick had been to decide who, before it is too late. Egypt’s Berlin Papyrus gives some useful tips. “Fumigate the woman with hippopotamus dung”, it advises. “If she urinates, or evacuates, or passes wind at the same time, she will not bear, but if she does not she will not.” For those lacking a ready supply of hippopotamus dung there is a simpler method. “Take the woman, and stand her in a doorway where her face can be seen, then examine her eyes closely. If one is like that of an Asiatic and the other that of a negress, she will not bear.” The advice gives a new meaning to gazing into your sweetheart’s eyes.
Women today, unblessed with an unmatched pair of eyes, can confidently place their trust in the Pill. In 1958, two years before the contraceptive pill became a reality, Aldous Huxley coined the term in his, Brave New World Revisited. Long before Huxley, other visionaries had developed their own versions. Dioscorides, in the first century, confidently announced that the bark of the white poplar tree, ground into a solution with a mule’s kidney, and drunk would make and effective contraceptive. He based his idea on the fact that the mule is sterile, and idea also seized on by the ancient Moroccans. They made a bread from a mule hoof enriched with flour, which the claimed would transfer the mule’s sterility.
By the Middle Ages the art of oral contraception had reached new heights. A powerful contraceptive could be made, it was said, by boiling the penis of a strong wolf with some pubic hair. Producing the same effect was a veal and vegetable soup, to which had been added the powdered penis of a red bull. Equally effective have been some of the oral contraceptives recommended in modern times. In 1957, China, driven to desperation by its massive population problem, conducted an experiment to determine the effectiveness of a Chinese folk contraceptive. Sixty women took part in the Chinese test. The instructions read: “Fresh tadpoles should be washed in clean cooled boiled water, and swallowed whole three to four days after menstruation. Fourteen live tadpoles on day one and ten more on the second day will prevent conception for five years. To be forever sterile, repeat the formula twice.”
In the test each woman swallowed 24 live tadpoles on day one, and 20 on day two. Presumably the scientists wanted to be doubly certain of the result. Surprisingly for them 43 percent of the women were soon pregnant. Despite this setback, Cheng Pui-yen of the Nanking Pharmaceutical Research Institute wrote in 1964 that tadpoles had been found to be “rather effective”. He added that it only remained to isolate the active constituent of the tadpole. Thanks to such optimism, China’s population remains the world’s largest, increasing by 38700 each day.
Of all the world’s oral contraceptives the most exclusive must have been the one used by Tibetan women. Its main ingredient was the dried excrement of the Dalai Lama, ruler of Tibet.
Reliance on folk magic has played a large part in the history of contraception. Oral contraception-in-reverse was used by medieval women, who would spit three times into the mouth of a frog. For long term protection they had simply to urinate on the urine of a wolf. Simpler still, but equally effective, was for the woman to sit on her fingers on the way to her wedding, each finger representing one child-free year.
Belief in symbolic acts became widespread throughout Europe. Sixteenth century Balkan women fixed an unlocked padlock to their dress before setting off for their weddings. The number of steps she made outside her house before locking the padlock represented her chosen number of childless years. When the groom arrived to take her to the church she could decide how many children she would have by climbing up a ladder, each rung representing one child. Provided the groom did not call the whole thing off as she climbed higher and higher, she could reinforce the spell by dropping grains of barley into her wedding shoes.
Less pleasant but equally effective were the beliefs involving the dead. Moroccan girls, fearing themselves pregnant, would step three times over a fresh grave, or they could go to the grave of a dead younger sister and shout, “I do not want any more children.” Dead younger sisters not always being available, this could be rather difficult. Middle European women shook the coffin of a dead child for similar effect, or washed themselves in water in which a dead child had been washed.
Repugnant in the extreme was the medieval French women’s custom of wearing about the neck the finger and anus of a still-born child. As a contraceptive its passion killing powers probably made it quite effective. Alternatively, the tooth of a child placed in an amulet was to be worn attached to the woman’s anus. The wearing of amulets has a long and ineffective history.
Aetius of Amida recommended wearing an amulet of ivory around the neck, the contents of which should be, “part of the womb of a lioness.” When lionesses are out of season he suggests, “the milk of a she-ass, with myrtle and black ivy berries wrapped in the skin of a hare, mule or stag.” Arab women fared equally badly, being encouraged to wear on their breast a box of rabbit droppings.
Where on the body the women wore the amulet seems to have been as important as its contents. Aetius states that a cat’s liver should be worn in a tube on the left foot, or, if the lady prefers the cat’s testicles, she should wear them around her navel. Sixteenth century women were salamander hearts tied to their knee and weasel’s testicles on their thigh. Also said to be effective were weasel feet worn around the neck, provided that the weasel was left alive after amputation.
Despite all these contraceptives, women continue to fall pregnant, and in despair, turned to the only options left. Abortion and infanticide have been around far longer than contraception, and several cultures have adopted them as an alternative. Girls have been the main victims of infanticide, being regarded in many cultures as burdens. So rife was infanticide in classical Greece that the father would publicly announce whether he intended to keep his newborn child or not.
Midwives were, in most cultures, as skilful at disposing of unwanted pregnancies as they were at delivering babies. Very often the writers who gave advice on contraception saw no distinction between contraception and abortion as a means of preventing unwanted babies. Almost all of the books dealing with contraception also dealt with abortion, sometimes graphically. A seventh century Chinese text gives a recipe for “The Thousand of Gold Prescription for Abortion,” which states that “the foetus will become like rice gruel and the mother will be without suffering.”
Despite, or perhaps because of these centuries of contraceptive practice, the world’s population continues to expand at an ever increasing rate. In 1987 the number of people living on the Earth exceeded five billion, and is growing at the rate of 150 a minute. The quest for the perfect contraceptive continues.
© R.I.Chalmers 1986
This article first appeared in Mayfair magazine.