Review: The Curious History of Contraception

The Curious History of Contraception

The Curious History of Contraception

by Shirley Green

1971. St. Martin's Press, NY.


Having been written in 1971, The Curious History of Contraception is significantly outdated and notably pre-AIDS, and as such is completely useless as a basis for choosing a method of contraception. However, it is a really entertaining account of trends and trivia in contraception in Greek and Roman, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and European history. For normal humans I imagine that 210 pages about the history of contraceptives would be a boring overload, but the book lends itself well to skimming, with goofy quotes scattered throughout.

Indeed, ridiculous quotes, in which people admit in Olde English to unshakable prudery or discuss their voracious copulation, were probably my favorite part of the book. Running a close second were the accounts of absurd and misguided birth control methods (eating lead! disgusting amulets made of dead babies! only have sex halfway between periods!). Also interesting were details of the birth control policies of different religions at various times, the work of birth control advocates from Albert the Great to Margaret Sanger, and basic analysis of social changes resulting from contraceptive technologies and policies (e.g., when the Catholic church declared contraception sinful and people actually followed it, Catholic France saw more abortions than live births).

Overall, this book gives the (probably very accurate) impression that the history of birth control is ridiculous, weird, illogical, and ruled by superstition. Although effective methods of birth control were known as far back as ancient times, the reasons they worked were never well understood and any idiot with a dream was likely to throw a wrench into the works that would never be corrected (e.g., reasonably effective contraceptive jellies intended to be inserted into the vagina before intercourse suddenly ended up being recommended for eating instead).

The Curious History stops without discussing the 1960s or the effects of the birth control pill, and all the historical interpretation is probably somewhat outdated, but I still found this book a reasonable, and thoroughly hilarious, overview.

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A good companion for this book would be an accurate guide to modern birth control and safer sex, such as Sex Sense by The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

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