Things have changed a lot since Plato settled down to write The Republic. After all, back then people believed the womb was a living, breathing creature with a mind of its own. But one thing that hasn’t changed? People’s eagerness for no-strings-attached sex. For thousands of years, men and women have wanted to do the deed without having to worry about catching something nasty or ending up with a miniature version of themselves nine months down the road.
Today, we have a range of (scientifically proven) contraceptive methods at our disposal, from the pill to IUDs to latex condoms. In yesteryear, however, our forefathers had to rely on more “inventive” methods, with varying rates of success. Think crocodile dung, weasel testicles, and mercury tablets.
Just be glad we have come a long way since the old days of lemon caps and black cat amulets. Here are some of the strangest ways people have avoided pregnancy and STIs throughout history.
Humans have been using condom-esque contraptions to ward off STIs and accidental pregnancy since at least the time of Rameses and Cleopatra. Back then, the ancient Egyptians donned colored sheaths on their man parts, which had the added benefit of displaying social status – probably helping many a nobleman woo a woman into bed.
There have been various twists on the classic love glove over the centuries, including a silk paper version in China and the exceedingly uncomfortable-sounding animal horn and tortoiseshell versions in Japan. But one of the most popular materials is animal intestine. In Renaissance Europe, butchers would craft condoms from discarded animal bladders and intestines.
Thank god for latex.
When life gives you lemons… Well, actually, it’s probably best you don’t do this.
Women in 18th-century Europe inserted makeshift caps made from half a lemon up their lady bits before sex like it was an old-timey diaphragm. We know this because history’s most notorious womanizer, Venetian ladies’ man Casanova, jotted down his adventures in the bedroom in a series of memoirs. And, yes, that included all things contraception-related.
While it’s certainly not something any modern-day doc would recommend, it was more effective than you might suspect. Lemon juice is a natural spermicide, and some recent studies have suggested it may even help protect against HIV.
Swallowing 16 tadpoles fried in mercury straight after sex (or anytime, for that matter) is a very, very bad idea. Nonetheless, that’s what women in ancient China were allegedly advised to do. It was probably fairly successful – after all, mercury consumption can cause permanent infertility. It also comes with a few other side effects like organ failure, paralysis, brain damage, and death.
Women who wanted to avoid accidental poisoning could skip the mercury tablets and instead act totally passively during sex, which the ancient Chinese thought was another fail-safe way to prevent pregnancy. Wonder how well that one worked out…
Mercury was not the only poisonous metal being regularly consumed by women needing birth control. Another fan favorite: lead, which could be applied to you-know-where in ointment form or slurped. Some women drank blacksmiths' water, which had been used to cool hot metal tools. Apparently, as recently as World War One, women working in factories would take home metallic water to use as a cheap contraceptive.
Again, this is not one to try at home. Lead poisoning can seriously damage every single organ in the body. In severe cases, it can also cause seizures, comas, and death.
In Medieval Europe, women wore amulets made from weasel testicles to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Sometimes it was worn around the neck, other times it was worn around the thighs. In both cases, its effectiveness rating was somewhere around the zero mark.
But weasel testicles weren’t the only animal body part used in lucky charms. Donkey poop, a mule’s uterus, and black cat bones were all believed to be effective forms of contraception. And if a man wore a black cat’s bone while getting down and the woman still fell pregnant? Simple. The cat was not black enough…
A date, acacia, and honey concoction
The Ebers Papyrus, written in 1550 BCE, includes a recipe for a natural spermicide using dates, acacia, and honey. Egyptian women would mash the ingredients together until they formed a paste. This was smeared over a ball of wool, which would then be shoved up the vagina like a sperm-killing tampon.
The date, acacia, and honey method was probably more effective than we give it credit for. The acacia shrub contains a substance called gum arabic, which ferments to produce lactic acid – something that is still found in spermicides today.
Crocodile and elephant dung
Some ancient Egyptian women resorted to a less appealing choice of birth control: a paste made from dried crocodile dung and honey. These DIY pessaries were inserted into the women’s hoo-ha so they could enjoy sex without the burden of unwanted pregnancy. The idea being that the dung would soften and block any incoming sperm.
Similar methods were used in India, only using the excrements of elephants. In other parts of the world, women have used vegetable seedpods, bundles of seaweed, moss, and bamboo, clumps of grass and crushed root, and balls of opium.
If you thought these downright bizarre contraceptive methods were all in the past and the 20th century was one of reason, enlightenment, and science, you would be sadly mistaken.
As recently as the fifties and sixties, women were douching themselves with Coca-Cola after sex. Not only does it make for a terrible spermicide – in fact, some scientists reckon douching, if anything, pushes sperm further upstream – pouring sugary soda into your vagina is a great way to get yourself a yeast or bacterial infection.
Soranus was an unfortunately named Greek gynecologist who attended to the women of ancient Rome. He was a strong advocate of the sneezing method, which basically involved the woman holding her breath during ejaculation "so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus," getting up after, and immediately sneezing to dispel any pesky sperm that might still be lurking. Safe to say, this is even less effective than the withdrawal method.
Some of Soranus' other questionable recommendations included a spermicide made from fresh pomegranate peel and water and olive oil injections to induce an abortion (that's if exercising vigorously didn't do the job first).