by Claire C. McKiernan
Did you know that if you attach a spider’s egg to your body with deer hide before sunrise it will prevent pregnancy for a year? Well, it won’t. If you can get your hands on the kidney of a mule and mix it with the urine of a eunuch, that won’t do much good, either. Good luck finding a eunuch, anyway.
I didn’t make up these bizarre concoctions, but they were believed to be effective means of birth control more than 2,000 years ago (think Cleopatra’s day). Interestingly, around the same time, women were also prescribed herbal remedies that included poplar, juniper berries, and giant fennel, which actually do have some qualities to reduce the chances of conception (but don’t try this at home). Condoms, albeit ones made from fish bladders or animal intestines, are even older, dating to at least 1000 BC.
Ancient vaginal suppositories were used that killed sperm or blocked it from entering the cervix; crocodile dung was a favorite base for these concoctions. Rudimentary diaphragms were also common: African women used plugs of grass; Islamic, Greek, and Egyptian women employed honey and oil moistened wool; Japanese women used balls of bamboo paper; and ancient Jewish women preferred silk-wrapped sea sponges with a string attached. Obviously, the idea of birth control isn’t, even remotely, a new idea.
The ineffective rhythm method has also been in use for thousands of years, but people not only employed the rigid time frame of the rhythm method, but also had little understanding of when a woman might be fertile during her cycle. For example, from 2,000 years ago until as late as 1920, it was believed that fertility was highest at the time of menstruation!
How about other free, no-ingredients-needed, birth control? From medieval times through today the method of withdrawal (coitus interruptus, or “pulling out”) has been very popular. Applying pressure and forcing the semen into the bladder rather than through the urethra (coitus obstructus) was recommended in Sanskrit texts, and avoiding ejaculation entirely (coitus reservatus) was also used by Hindus. I can’t find statistics on the last two, but keep in mind that, according to the World Bank, the 2011 population of India was 1, 241,491, 960, and India is slightly more than 1/3 the size of the U.S. (I’m just saying…) As for withdrawal, the efficacy rates are between 70-95% (similar to the condom), depending on consistent use and, well… how good he is at it. Two seconds too late, and you haven’t used any method at all.
Imagine the days of American westward expansion in the mid-to-late 1800’s. These women were traveling in bumpy covered wagons to the west coast through rugged country in all kinds of weather and terrain, through food shortages, dysentery, cholera, wagon accidents, wolves, snakes, bison stampedes, and occasional attacks from the Native Americans. They could have begun the roughly 8-month journey pregnant or risked becoming pregnant along the way. They may have been newly married or already traveling with a crew of six children. If they made it to the west coast alive, there was a very real risk of having lost a child and/or husband along the way. You’d better believe they were interested in birth control!
By 1840 the condom was in use in this country (though its use became more acceptable and widespread after WWI as a means of controlling STDs). A female preventative called a pessairre (a French term Anglicized to pessary), or colloquially, a “pisser”, was also available (though not everywhere). Today we would call it a diaphragm. It came with directions and according to a letter exchanged between two women in 1885, it cost a dollar. Douching recipes were also used at the time, though douching is hardly effective.
In the 1930’s, a German Catholic priest named Wilhelm Hillebrand developed a natural family planning method based on basal body temperature, and twenty years later Dr. John Billings realized the state of cervical mucus was directly related to fertility. By the 1970’s, a third sign, cervical position, was added to this base of knowledge. With blessings from the Pope, Catholic organizations have been teaching these methods of natural family planning ever since (although NFP can be an umbrella term for less accurate methods, as well). On the secular level, Toni Weschler has been teaching these same fertility signs with her Fertility Awareness Method since the 1980’s. She published her enormously popular book Taking Charge of Your Fertility in 1995. Every woman should own this book, regardless of her choice of birth control, simply because it will help her become intimately familiar with her personal cycle. “Know thyself,” as Socrates famously said.
In 1960, with money raised by Margaret Sanger (who coined the term “birth control” and founded the first birth control clinic), Frank Colton invented Enovid, the first oral contraceptive pill. It had serious health risks (a topic that still comes up in the lower dose versions of today) and was legalized, regardless of marital status, by the Supreme Court in 1972.
Also during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, IUDs were marketed in the U.S. and tubal ligation became popular (getting the ol’ tubes tied was first reported in 1881, and was performed when believed medically necessary). Vasectomies, too, became more popular particularly since, compared to tubal ligation, they have fewer complications, have a faster recovery rate, are considerably cheaper, and some studies show them to be more effective. Doctors experimented on dogs in the 1800’s, and in the early 1900’s vasectomies were performed for various reasons ranging from enlarged prostates, facilitating the removal of bladder stones, and on criminals. It was used as a birth control method on healthy men beginning in the 1950’s.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the introduction of hormonal implants, injections, low-dose pills, patches, and vaginal rings. In the 21st century we have seen the female condom, Mirena IUD, and the morning after pill come on the market.
From the preposterous mule kidney preventative to the second-only-to-abstinence vasectomy, we’ve come a long way, baby. In the course of our child-bearing years many of us will have tried numerous forms of birth control, sometimes because different ones suit us at different stages, and sometimes because we are on the endless hunt for the “right” one. If you are currently on the hunt, I have two suggestions:
1) Know and trust your body because it cannot be compared to anyone else’s! Too many of us suffer months or years using a method that simply does not work for us. It may be preventing pregnancy, but if it causes unpleasant mental/emotional or physical side effects, or you simply don’t feel happy with it, keep looking. Sex and stress shouldn’t go together.
2) Research your options! Start with brochures or a chart such as:
(Note: there are no statistics on crocodile dung, so don’t go that route.)
Then, pick out the options that might fit and really study them to narrow down how they will work with your individual needs. Just because your sister, mother, or best friend, swear by a method, doesn’t mean it’s for you. Good luck!