The past few weeks have been rough for birth control accessibility in America. In early October, President Trump announced new regulations that will make it easy for almost any employer to buck—on broad religious or moral grounds—the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to offer healthcare that provides free contraception to women. This won’t affect all of the 55 million people who, according to a 2016 report, have benefitted from the requirement, but it may make it harder for tens to hundreds of thousands of women to manage their own reproduction.
Weeks later, Newsweek reported on an unverified leaked memo suggesting that the government plans to start favoring period tracking (perhaps the most ineffective and burdensome form of birth control known to woman) over other methods of contraception. The prospects of further crippling the ACA or defunding Planned Parenthood still tantalize the GOP. And Trump’s out to slash funding for any program that doesn’t make things go boom, so he is one giant, ongoing threat to birth control.
Thankfully, Trump and the GOP can’t totally limit access to contraception. Still, their efforts to chip away at it have spooked people; many women are planning ahead for how to survive in a world with no easy or reliable access to cheap or free birth control, considering IUDs or stocking up on oral and emergency contraception. But the prospect of a world with limited access to modern birth control may lead some to wonder what people did before it was even available—and what we might be forced to rely on in a dystopian conservative future.
As it turns out, people have been so invested in the ability to have sex while avoiding pregnancy that they’ve tried an almost endless series of DIY contraceptive methods, leaving records of their attempts stretching back almost 4,000 years. (Records of ancient abortion practices go just as far back, and co-mingle in historical texts with contraceptive tactics.) Pre-modern birth control went far beyond basic tactics, like favoring decidedly non-reproductive sex—oral, anal, homosexual—or the fairly ineffective pullout method.
Much of pre-modern contraception seems patently ineffective, if not just insane. Some medieval Europeans relied on amulets made of herbs, dead animal bits, menstrual blood, or other random shit, sometimes literally. One of the most striking amulets was a weasel testicle, tied around the neck or thigh during sex. They also relied on rituals like circling spots a pregnant wolf pissed on.
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Methods like the “Lacedaemon Leap” of ancient Greece or lead- and mercury-laced potions of China do have a ring of logic to them. The former involves a woman drawing back as soon as she feels a man start to ejaculate, jump up, squat, and scrape out the semen. The core idea, keeping sperm away from the cervix, makes sense, and may have a tiny effect on chances of pregnancy. But it would have been overall largely ineffective; sperm move fast. The latter method makes sense too, but only insomuch as drinking poison can fuck your whole body up, killing whatever’s in your uterus too.
However some researchers now believe that several methods of ancient birth control could have been effective, albeit probably not nearly as reliable as the pill or an IUD. “Ancient, medieval, and pre-modern women knew basically what herbs to take to prevent conception,” says John Riddle, an emeritus professor of medical history at North Carolina State University and the leading proponent of the view that some ancient birth control actually worked. He maintains that the rise of male-dominated medical education denigrated and lost touch with this knowledge, which was largely preserved by women in folk settings.
Almost every culture developed barriers to block sperm’s path to the cervix, from seedpods in southern Africa to seaweed wads in the Pacific to beeswax, stone discs, or more animal balls. Basically, if you can think of it, someone put it up a vagina to try and prevent pregnancy. Some of these barriers may have changed the vaginal ecosystem enough to make it at least slightly spermicidal. Think the widespread ancient use of animal dung—famously crocodile shit in Egypt, or the ancient Mesopotamian use of acidic acacia fruit, mixed with honey and dates and applied on a piece of cotton like a tampon. There’s also the ancient Indian approach of shoving a gob of pH altering rock salt up one’s self. These approaches were popular well into the early modern era. Eighteenth century Italian playboy Giacomo Casanova, for instance, used half a lemon as a diaphragm.
Ancient potions receive less attention than barriers because, as Riddle sees it, historians largely “regarded recipes as magical, inert, or folklore.” But some early oral concoctions may have included hormone-altering substances within a larger delivery system. Famously, ancient Mediterraneans swore by silphium, a plant that grew wild near the North African city of Cyrene, for centuries as an oral contraceptive, overusing it to extinction by the first century C.E. Related plants are still used in folk contraception in the Middle East and Central Asia and seem to have some contraceptive effect on rats in lab studies, although their efficacy in humans is much iffier.
“Beginning with research made by veterinarians to explain why there were low fertility rates [in] certain grazing animals,” Riddle said, “science now recognizes that plants have hormonal effects on animals… [including] the stimulation or suppression of estrogen and progesterone.”
We know less about the other oils, seeds, and herbs ancients consumed prophylactically. But there’s a chance that, if studied, some will prove to have varying effects on fertility-related hormones. Sure, many are likely total duds, like snake oil. But substances that recur in potions, or are still used today—like ground Queen Anne’s Lace seeds, which comes up in ancient Greek texts and which Riddle notes some Appalachians still drink daily as a contraceptive—are good candidates for study.
As bizarre as much of ancient birth control seems to us today, one thing’s familiar: Most of it puts the responsibility for contraception—and its nasty side effects—on women. I mean, rock salt and lemons in a vagina—fuck. Things that resemble condoms show up thousands of years ago, but those may have been decorative (think, a sheath to dress up a dick). The contraceptive use of love gloves only pops up for sure in the historical record the medieval era. Even then condoms weren’t that effective until the latex-y 20th century.
There were a couple of male-centric potions and lube-like substances, Riddle points out. Juniper smeared on the penis, he notes, was seen as so potent that German towns outlawed, to little avail. He also points out that Romans and medieval monks consumed tree bark to suppress their sex drive. But that’s not much in the way of pre-modern gender equality in responsibilities for contraception.
All told, there may be more to ancient contraception than superstition and desperation. Some potions and barriers may deserve a fresh look to identify compounds or techniques to expand the variety and availability of birth control even further. Of course, there’s no solid proof yet that they’re anywhere near as safe and reliable as the modern contraception most of us use today. So it’d really suck if Trump and company forced us back to a place where we all scrounge around for juniper to rub on our dicks and Queen Anne’s Lace seeds to swallow for even the hope of protection.
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