Nowadays, we have a plethora of contraceptives to choose from. When it comes to family planning, women can opt for pills, patches, injections, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and implants.
Male contraceptives are still catching up, with condoms and vasectomies being the only tried and true options for men. Although research is ongoing into a reversible form of contraception for men, the NHS says it may be several years until it becomes a reality.
So what did people use before hormonal contraceptives?
To mark Sexual Health Week 2021, we looked back at some of the bizarre birth control methods used throughout history.
Goat’s bladder, linen sheaths, leather, and lambskin
The first known use of a condom was by Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete in Greek mythology, who used a goat’s bladder to protect herself from her husband’s semen which was said to contain “scorpions and serpents”. Yikes.
Condoms used circa 1,000 B.C.E. were fashioned from oiled silk paper, linen sheaths, leather, or very thin hollow horn, according to Verywell. It’s thought that sheep guts began being used as a barrier in the 1640s. Some believe that the name “condom” was coined after a physician called Dr. Condom gave King Charles II oiled sheep intestines as a barrier in the 1660s. Others say it derives from the Latin condus, meaning “vessel”.
Medieval European women reportedly used to wear weasel testicles around their necks or tie them around their legs to ward off unwanted pregnancies.
In Canada in the 16th century, some took the animal testicle idea and modified it into a postcoital cocktail of ground beaver testicles and moonshine.
Honey, acacia and lint
As early as 1850 B.C. women in ancient Egypt were concocting homemade spermicides, according to Flo. Women would insert lint or cotton soaked in honey, acacia fruit and acacia leaves into their vaginas in the hopes that some of the sperm would die before reaching the uterus.
It’s thought that ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians would form a pessary made of crocodile dung as birth control. According to Flo, dung was also used in other parts of the world, with women in ancient India and the Middle East using elephant faeces.
In 1909 we had the first IUD. Dr Richard Richter created a ring made of silkworm gut that could be inserted into the womb with the goal of provoking an inflammatory response, making the uterus an inhospitable place for sperm.
Although the silkworm gut version of the early IUD never quite took off, physicist Ernest Graefenberg went on to develop Graefenberg’s ring, a coil made of silver, in 1928. (Bonus fact: the G spot is named after Graefenberg after he discovered the “erotic zone” in 1950).
Douching was thought to have been an effective way to flush out or kill any lingering sperm, with Roman women reportedly using seawater, lemon juice or vinegar.
Rumour had it that cola was also used as a douche, with Snopes stating it was a “somewhat popular” method in the 1950s and 1960s. The “shake and shoot” method saw the girl open a warm bottle of cola, shake it with her thumb over the top of the bottle, then insert it and move her thumb away to create an “an effervescent spermicidal douche”. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.
Antiseptic soap Lysol was also ineffectively used in the mid-1900s before the pill became popular in the 1960s.
Jumping and sneezing
In a blog post where several common conception myths are debunked, Snopes reminds us that no amount of jumping up and down or sneezing will make a difference once you’ve done the deed.
Although it’s easy to chuckle at some of the lengths people went to in a bid to ward off any unwanted pregnancies back in the day, looking back at the history of contraception highlights how important it has always been in terms of family planning and bodily autonomy, and how far we have come.