Some Thoughts on . . .

Condoms: Contraception versus Protection

The condom or sheath is not so much part of "the history of contraception" as part of the history of prophylaxis or the protection of sexual health. As F.M.L. Thompson points out in The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain (1988), protection against sexually transmitted diseases was almost the sole reason for using condoms in Victorian Britain, and there is no evidence that the reduction of conception, in the working classes, was due to sheathing, and very little evidence that it was employed for that purpose in the upper classes. I think we can go so far as to say that sheathing was invented and used for the purposes of specifically protecting men from the pox: that it is a device for protecting male health rather than reducing female fertility. This general confusion between contraception and protection reminds me of 1950s sociology textbooks whose chapters on "Sexuality" turn out to be chapters on Procreation.

(Incidentally, the etmologies offered for the word "condom" all seem to be fallacious. It appears in "Panegyric upon the Cundum", a work which was falsely dated 1667 but which was certainly published later than 1709.)

I think it is pretty clear that the need for (male) sexual health preceded and determined the steady improvement of sheaths, that rubber technology in this instance did not precede the exploitation of a new-found use for it; and that, in either case, the issue of contraception was almost irrelevant. The "history of contraception" might indeed have been different if a "morning after" pill had been discovered earlier, but this would not have affected the development of the condom, which was designed to prevent disease rather than fertility. This continued to be true for much of the twentieth century. Condoms were widely distributed among the troops during the First World War specifically to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and for most of their history they have been associated primarily with potentially dangerous sex outside of marriage. A woman who hands her lover a condom even today is regarded as a whore in most countries, and among the lower classes of European countries and the USA. I think there was probably a period of only two generations during the mid-twentieth century when condoms, euphemistically called "contraceptives", were actually used mainly as contraceptives, among the middle classes. Today of course they are again being widely distributed and promoted by governments specifically as protection against HIV, not as birth control devices.

Protection is largely a medical issue, whereas restriction of family size (contraception) is largely an economic issue. Thompson shows how, as each occupational class begins to be affected by the industrial revolution, they begin to restrict family size for the sake of economic self-interest. Abortifacients were as widely available and commercialized as rubber condoms during the late nineteenth century, and had a greater effect on limiting family size in the textile towns of Britain in the 1870s than condoms.

It's fascinating to read Thompson's summary of the progression throughout the century when various groups begin to limit family size, leading to a decline in the birth rate: first the artistocrats in the 1830s (though they had smaller families from the sixteenth century onwards), then, a generation later, upper middle class professionals, then the urban middle classes (industrialists etc.) by the 1860s, then the lower middle classes (clerks etc.) in the 1870s/1880s, then the working classes by the end of the century. At the beginning of the century, 8 children born alive was the average (5 for aristocrats); by the end of the century, only heavy manual labourers had an average of more than 4 or 5 children. It's even possible to trace the pecking order of respectability among these groupings such as textile workers: e.g. 3.78 children for wool and worsted spinners and 4.80 for cotton spinners. Means other than "contraception" were of course used, such as delaying the age of marriage, and, interestingly, the steady rise in the number of men and women who did not get married, a demographic pattern that is often ignored in histories focusing narrowly on contraception.

Simon Szreter's book Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860–1940 offers a statistical study of census data which apparently proves that sexual abstinence really did occur during the mid-to-late Victorian period: family size declined simply because sexual intercourse was practised less frequently. We cannot altogether eliminate the possibility that condoms may have been used for contraceptive purposes, e.g. to avoid payments under the Bastardy Clauses of the New Poor Law. But there isn't enough evidence to suggest the likelihood of this being the case. Unfortunately we only have anecdotal evidence regarding the use of condoms outside of marriage, and can't assemble any statistics.

Condoms actually promote sexual activity, albeit non-procreative sex. For example, John Grossett Muirhead of St George's, Hanover Square, in 1825 met an apprentice boy outside a print shop in Sackville Street, off Piccadilly, where he showed him some indecent prints and books, and two "skins" (i.e. condoms) which he bet the boy could not fit into – thereby encouraging him to get an erection. The following day Muirhead took this apprentice and two other lads to an oyster shop, where he showed them more pornography and fondled them and gave them a crown apiece. Two officers, previously alerted by the boys, burst in and arrested him. He was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. Three years and nine months later he was arrested in Dover for a similar offence, whereupon he fled to the Continent. My point for mentioning this case is that one of Muirhead's condoms was produced as evidence in court, and its use had to be explained to judge and jury. Unfortunately the court reporter does not define precisely what its "use" was considered to have been, whether contraceptive or protective, or if it was a purely mechanical description of how it was put on etc. This illustrates the difficulty of evaluating the evidence. Much of the anecdotal evidence I've come across suggests that condoms served the function of stimulating illicit sexual activity, as in the Muirhead case – where it was used simply as a suggestive object for homoerotic, hence non-contraceptive, purposes.


Copyright © 1999, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the Victorian Discussion List in March 1999.


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