Contraception Then and Now

When it comes to contraception, one thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way! And while the future might have even better things in store, like reversible male birth control, superior condoms, or remote-controlled implants, a look into the past reveals that modern contraceptors have a bevy of fantastic options to choose from. Unlike couples who had to forgo contraception or obtain birth control from the black market, nowadays Americans wishing to prevent or postpone pregnancy can select from a variety of legal, effective, and increasingly accessible family-planning methods.


While the history of birth control is fascinating, today’s contraception is the very best.


Let’s look at some old-fashioned birth-control methods and see how they stack up to their modern-day counterparts.

Linen and Guts vs. Latex and Polyurethane Condoms

Most people think of female condoms as new inventions, but the first condom recorded in history was made out of a goat’s bladder and inserted into the vagina — way back in 3000 BC. Ancient civilizations, from the Romans to the Egyptians to the Japanese, made penile sheaths and caps with a variety of materials, including linen, leather, lubricated silk paper, intestines, and tortoise shells. Linen and intestines remained popular through the Renaissance era.

A condom, with a user manual, from 1813. Photo: Matthias Kabel

A condom, with user manual, 1813. Photo: Matthias Kabel

Charles Goodyear might be most famous for tires, but his discoveries in vulcanizing rubber also led to the development of rubber condoms in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, the Comstock Act of 1873 outlawed the manufacture and sale of contraception, and condoms were driven into a shadow economy. In the 1880s, New Yorkers might have been lucky to find black-market condoms made from surplus animal intestines, which were manufactured by Julius Schmid, a German immigrant who otherwise specialized in sausage casings — before his business was shut down by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Condoms weren’t legal in the United States until the Crane ruling of 1918, just in time for the 1920 invention of latex, a form of rubber that was much stronger and more elastic — and with a shelf life of five years vs. rubber’s three months. By the 1920s, Schmid was once again on top of the condom game, peddling brands like Sheik, Ramses, and Sphinx.

Condoms made out of intestines are still on the market, sold as lambskin or “natural” condoms. However, they are not recommended for STD protection: Just as intestines need to allow nutrients to enter the body from digesting food, so too are viruses able to pass through condoms made from intestines. (Sperm, on the other hand, are thought to be too big.) These days, latex is the gold-standard material for condoms, while polyurethane can be used by people with latex allergies. Condoms constructed with these modern materials protect users from unintended pregnancy as well as many sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV and chlamydia. Continue reading

Book Club: Outlaw Marriages

Sally Ride, the famous astronaut who passed away in July from pancreatic cancer, left an unexpected gift to America’s youth. In her obituary, it was revealed that Ride, the first American woman to travel into outer space, had been in a committed, same-sex relationship for 27 years with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Having quietly come out, she now serves as an important, high-profile role model for LGBTQ youth.

Although it became public knowledge too recently to be included, Ride’s story mirrors those found in a recently published collective biography by Rodger StreitmatterOutlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press, 2012) visits the topic of same-sex marriage in the United States, covering 140 years of history in 15 marriages, from 1865 to 2005.


Marriage practices have taken many forms across time and across cultures.


Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., profiles the marriages of luminaries ranging from poet Walt Whitman to screen star Greta Garbo, bringing his subjects to life in stories that can be fascinating, poignant, and even humorous. The 15 marriages he chronicles were “outlaw marriages,” because “each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.” Continue reading

Book Club: A Queer History of the United States

Beacon Press, the nonprofit publishing company of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a long history of publishing books that have informed and inspired civil rights and social justice movements, from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to Tucson author Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land. In that tradition, Beacon has launched a new book series called ReVisioning American History. The first in that series is Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, which was released in hardcover in May 2011 and will be released in trade paperback on May 15, 2012.


Bronski frames LGBTQ history as one that is woven into the fabric of U.S. history — not separate from or additional to it.


Bronski explains in the introduction to his book that he is interested in providing something more than a history of “who might have been ‘gay’ in the past or had sexual relations with their own sex.” In fact, his mention of individuals is often pared down to the sheerest character sketches and profiles. Far from a collective biography of LGBTQ Americans, Bronski’s interest in individuals is often limited to a person’s role as agents in a process of evolving gender expectations, agents who sometimes shape those expectations and other times act independently of them. He explains that he doesn’t want to reduce history to “names, dates, political actions, political ideas, laws passed and repealed.” Instead, borrowing the words of Shulamith Firestone, he wants to present history “as process, a natural flux of action and reaction.” Continue reading