Honey. Lysol. CocaCola. These might sound like items you’d pick up at the grocery store or order on Amazon, but would you even think about using any of them as ingredients to prevent pregnancy? Yet in the history of birth control, women—and men—have turned to some pretty unusual things to avoid getting pregnant, all of which make today’s birth control pill seem like the iPhone of contraception.
The evolution of contraception for women
Ancient methods of birth control
Long before diaphragms and vaginal rings, women had to get pretty creative to keep from getting pregnant. Concubines in ancient China mixed lead and mercury, which often led to sterility, brain damage and death. The Egyptians opted to insert a mix of honey, sodium carbonate and crocodile dung before sex as a type of spermicide. Things hadn’t improved much centuries later, when European women during the Middle Ages tied weasel testicles around their thighs and necks to prevent pregnancy. During the 18th century, the womanizer Casanova was said to have fashioned a cervical cap for his love interests from a pulped lemon half. The physical barrier and the acid from the fruit made for an effective double-contraceptive punch.
One step forward and two steps back for contraception
Even as the Industrial Revolution brought incredible innovations during the second half of the 18th century—like the steam engine, cotton gin, and mass production of condoms—cultural mores towards birth control in the ensuing decades became increasingly restrictive. Anti-obscenity laws passed in the U.S. prohibited anyone, including doctors, from sharing information about how to prevent pregnancy. Instead, women turned to household products like Lysol and Coke to use as types of spermicide, hopefully to keep from getting pregnant.
Popular modern methods of birth control for women
Things didn’t improve much on the contraceptive front for women until a judge lifted the ban on birth control in 1938 during a case involving Margaret Sanger, the activist and educator whose illegally-established birth-control clinics were the precursors to Planned Parenthood. In the next few decades, there were some big developments in contraception:
- Diaphragm: Also known as the “womb veil,” women embraced this form of contraception following the repeal of anti-obscenity laws
- Oral contraceptives: Even though women had been trying to swallow things for centuries to prevent pregnancy (native women brewed a tea out of preserved beaver testicles), today’s Pill wasn’t developed in 1960. In 1972 it was finally legal for unmarried women to use it (or any other form of birth control)
- Intrauterine devices: IUDs were approved in 1968 but after the FDA suspended sales of a popular brand in 1974, IUDs were slowly taken off the US market due to the escalating costs of lawsuits in subsequent years
Flash forward 50 years, and today there’s a whole variety of contraceptive methods available to women, from birth control implants to the Plan-B emergency contraceptive pill.
The history of contraception for men
They may get paid more and are allowed to get old in Hollywood, but when it comes to contraceptive options, men have gotten the short end of the stick for millenia.
Prophylactics: made from all sorts of things
Things started off promising enough, as the discovery of ancient cave drawings showed what looked to be a rudimentary picture of a condom. Throughout much of history, efforts have been spent on trying to improve forms of prophylactics. These efforts started out around 3,000 B.C., with prophylactics being fashioned out of materials like fish bladders, linen sheaths, and animal intestines that were tied on (and reusable!). In the late 16th century, condoms were made out of linen and soaked in chemicals, which helped stop the rampant spread of syphilis.
Rubber condoms were invented by Charles Goodyear in 1855, but production was halted a few decades later by the passing of the Comstock Act. Then in the early 20th century, single-use latex condoms were developed that were cheap and fast to produce. Today, there’s a never-ending variety of sizes, colors, and even flavors of condoms available.
One of the biggest breakthroughs for male contraception was the development of the vasectomy, which offers men the option of permanent sterility. Some of the earliest human vasectomies—in which a doctor snips the vas deferens to prevent sperm from entering the urethra during sexual intercourse—were performed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were actually done so as a means of sterilizing criminals. Later, vasectomies were thought to improve sexual vigor and potency, and wealthy men—like Freud and Yeats— clamored to get them. Following World War II, vasectomies became a more widely accepted form of birth control.
Because vasectomies take a few months to take effect—while residual sperm are flushed out of the system—men are required to do a follow-up with their doctor to test their sperm count and determine their level of fertility. The development of SpermCheck, an over-the-counter test that lets men check their sperm levels at home, has had a dramatic impact on male contraceptive practices. The FDA approved the groundbreaking technology in 2008, which was developed by a team at the University of Virginia. SpermCheck Vasectomy has helped men for the last decade avoid the hassle—and awkwardness—of providing a sample at a doctor’s office.
In the future, there may be the development of a new male contraceptive pill or a gel that could cut down on sperm production, but it will be infinitely better than crocodile dung or beaver testicles!