In binge-watching old favorite sitcoms, I've uncovered a bizarre trend in late 90s and early 2000s: a significant proportion of female characters in these shows chose, as their preferred birth control, to use a diaphragm. But at the time these shows aired, the diaphragm was virtually obsolete in the real world.
The diaphragm is a little rubbery disc that's fitted by a doctor and inserted into the vagina before intercourse to prevent pregnancy. This method of contraception makes an appearance in Seinfeld, in Friends, even Felicity. It plays a major role in plots of both King of Queens and Sex and the City. All of these shows span from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, a time when, in America, fewer than 1 percent of women used a freaking diaphragm. Why were sitcoms at this time so obsessed with a form of birth control that had been vanishing from use since the 1960s?
The diaphragm wasn't always a fringe form of birth control. In 1955, 25 percent of white married women (that's who the survey looked at) used a diaphragm, according to the book Fertility Control. But once the pill came on the scene, use of diaphragms began to plummet. The pill was more effective, and you didn't have to run to the bathroom to insert anything before getting down. By 1965, only 10 percent of birth control users chose the diaphragm, which dropped to 1.2 percent by 1995. By 2006 "use of the diaphragm had virtually disappeared (the estimate is indistinguishable from zero)," according to the CDC report.
Curiously, right as the diaphragm was vanishing from use in the general public, it started to gain prominence on TV. It's a major plot point in a 1999 episode of Sex and the City: Carrie's diaphragm gets stuck, and she needs Samantha to fish it out of her, prompting the girls to realize she must be sleeping with somebody. They pepper her with questions, forcing her to reveal she's back with Big. I reached out to Sex and the City writer Cindy Chupack, whose agent politely declined my request.
The diaphragm plays a similar dramatic role in a 2001 episode of King of Queens, when lead Carrie realizes she is pregnant because she was too embarrassed to ask her father to slide her diaphragm under the bathroom door. It's also the punchline of a joke in a 1995 episode of Friends (the joke starts at 1:50):
I messaged the writer of this episode, Adam Chase, on Twitter, and though he was kind enough to respond, he told me "I'm sorry. I just don't remember."
But the examples don't stop. In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine's open discussion about accidentally dropping her diaphragm at a party makes Jerry's new girlfriend, a virgin, uncomfortable. Famously, Elaine later spends an entire episode obsessing over the fact that her preferred birth control method—now, apparently the sponge—is going off the market. She now has to decide if prospective partners are "sponge-worthy."
I reached out to Julia Louis-Dreyfus to see if she had an insight about the use of birth control in the show. Her publicist told me "unfortunately, due to her production schedule she's unable to participate so we will need to kindly pass on her behalf." So I went to the next best source: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a pop culture expert and the author of Seinfeldia, a history of the show.
"I knew exactly what you were talking about the minute I heard it, because it's really weird, right?" Armstrong told me.
Though she didn't have any insider knowledge about the diaphragm episode, Armstrong did know some backstory behind the episode about the sponge. The writer, Peter Mehlman, heard a news report on the radio while driving that mentioned a brand of sponge was going off the market.
"He heard it on NPR and he just thought to himself, 'that's funny, what if Elaine was a sponge user?'" Armstrong said. "Seinfeld is very obsessed with the minutiae of everyday life, and what's more everyday than figuring out your birth control and just hoping it will work?"
Armstrong guessed that the diaphragm reference was probably spurred by a number of factors: it's a funnier word, and item, than say the pill, and most of the writers on the show were men.
This is a trend that is consistent across all of the examples I found: each episode, even the Sex and the City episode, was written by a man who perhaps just didn't have as keen of an awareness that diaphragms weren't really a thing any more. That's part of the theory that I got from Sarah Forbes, the former curator at the Museum of Sex and the author of "Sex in the Museum."
"Like many topics that get introduced in TV, birth control might not be as represented by the dominant writing demographic," Forbes said via email. But she also had another idea for why the diaphragm might have been such a popular choice, at least for network sitcoms:
"It could hide away in plain sight it's intended use, almost. It's not an everyday word loaded with so much of the politics of sex that surround the pill and condoms," Forbes said. "Think of the shows you just mentioned. The diaphragm has the 'safety' of being of the sexual terminology of the past, making it feel more benign to a contemporary audience."
So whether it's because male sitcom writers were woefully out of touch with birth control trends, or it was a handy comic device, or a way of appeasing uptight audiences, one thing's for sure: the popularity of the diaphragm is one of the most unrealistic tropes of 90s sitcoms. And I may not be the only one to come to this conclusion. In a 2015 episode of Younger—a sitcom created by Darren Star, who wrote the diaphragm episode of Sex and the City—there's a pretty clear nod to the diaphragms obsolescence:
Maybe it was just a long-running, multi-show-spanning joke all along.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.