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A satirical Victorian postcard showing a woman fighting off a stork carrying a baby

Contraception through the ages: From crocodile dung to condoms

The first clinical description of condoms came forth in 1564, courtesy of Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio

Image: A satirical Victorian postcards shows a woman fighting off pregnancy | Public Domain

Sex: A Bonkers History explores how sexual behaviour through the ages has shaped civilisation in ways we are only now beginning to discover. Host Amanda Holden shines a light on history's most unknown and risqué sex stories.

Papyrus pregnancy prevention tips

Dating back to around 1825 BC, the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is one of the oldest known documents on reproductive issues. It’s famous for its reference to the contraceptive effectiveness of crocodile dung, but what exactly you’re meant to do with the dung is a matter of debate.

Many assume the papyrus was telling Egyptian women to insert the dung inside them before sex to block the sperm. However, others interpret it as suggesting the dung should be burnt to fumigate the bedroom and thereby prevent conception from taking place (perhaps because the romantic vibe would struggle to withstand the stench).

A later document known as the Ebers Papyrus, dating to around 1550 BC, does explicitly suggest creating an early diaphragm or cap. Just mash up some dates, honey and acacia leaves, mix it up with wool, put it in the vagina, and you’re good to go.

The mysterious vegetable

Perhaps the most fascinating contraceptive of the ancient world was silphium – mainly because we’re still not clear on exactly what it was. What we do know is that it was a vegetable valued as highly as gold by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, mentioned in poems and songs, and featured on the coinage of Cyrene – a city in northern Africa whose economy was based on exporting the stuff.

Probably some kind of giant fennel, silphium was consumed as a food, an aphrodisiac and a medicine. Evidence suggests that it was regarded as a contraceptive, and it’s even been theorised that its seedpods, which resembled little love hearts, helped make that shape the universal symbol of romance.

In any case, silphium may have been too popular for its good, as it seems to have been farmed to extinction at some point. Either that, or one of today’s fennel-like plants is the silphium of old, and humans have just forgotten which one it is.

Seeds, fruits and amulets

Of course, plenty of other herbs and veggies have been ingested throughout time in the hope of warding off pregnancy. One prime example is Queen Anne’s lace, a kind of wild carrot, whose seeds would be ground up, mixed with water and knocked back following sex as an early kind of ‘morning after pill’.

Humans have also experimented with all kinds of pessaries (artefacts placed inside vaginas) across the ages. We mentioned the date-and-wool mulch the Egyptians used, but thousands of years later, the 18th century bedroom-hopper Casanova would reportedly cut a lemon in half, squeeze out the pulp, and use the empty shell as a blockade. It’s probably safe to assume this was markedly less effective than the medically-viable rubber diaphragms which emerged in the 19th century.

Special mention should also be made of the more, esoteric contraceptive methods devised in the dim and distant past. Women in the Middle Ages were known to have tied weasel testicles around their legs to keep their wombs inhospitable during sex, while desiccated cats’ livers and shards of animal bones were also used as contraceptive amulets.

The elusive Dr Condom

The most instantly recognisable form of contraception is the condom. This unassuming piece of technology has been around for a very long time, with versions across the millennia being fashioned from animal intestines and even tortoiseshells.

The first clinical description of condoms came forth in 1564, courtesy of Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio. He wrote a text on syphilis that described how tying linen sheaths to penises using ribbons could prevent the spread of the disease.

An even more colourful chapter of condom lore involves a certain ‘Dr Condom’, who is said to have provided sheaths to Charles II in the 17th century, giving his name to the prophylactics in the process. Sadly, there’s no evidence that the good doctor actually existed, and the etymology of the word is still a matter of debate.

What’s beyond question is that the invention and mass production of rubber condoms in the 19th century was a true milestone in the history of how human beings have sex, bringing a new level of protection from both disease and unwanted pregnancy.

The pill that changed everything

Every bit as world-changing as the advent of rubber condoms was the approval of the first contraceptive pill in 1960. The breakthrough was down to the work of biologists Gregory Pincus and Min Chueh Chang, along with gynaecologist John Rock, who all received crucial backing from birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger and wealthy industrial heiress Katharine McCormick.

A hassle-free, more effective alternative to other kinds of contraception, the pill was a truly revolutionary invention that became a crucial weapon in the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. As it gave women greater bodily autonomy, allowing them to have sex without fear of pregnancy and to delay having children until they were ready, unprecedented numbers of women entered higher education and progressed up career ladders.

By so completely unshackling the pleasures of sex from the repercussions of reproduction, the pill also contributed to the more progressive and promiscuous attitudes which spread during the Swinging Sixties and have remained with us ever since. More than any other form of birth control, it could be said the pill shaped the modern world.