Birth Control: How Historically Romantic!

Last week, Jen wrote in the comments to our discussion about sexless romance, It almost bugs me when the historicals do have sex, because I know there are some primative birth control methods, but the heroines never seem to use them.

I have to admit to being a complete noob when it comes to the history of birth control options. I’ve read a fair share of romances wherein the hero uses a sheath of one sort or another, or introduces the heroine to such a device for pre-marital canoodling, but female birth control options? I have been pondering the idea for a good few hours now, and I’m having a hard time remembering a romance wherein the heroine practiced birth control. I recall a few “chicken’s bladder of blood” scenarios to hide an absence of virginity, but active birth control usage in an historical? My memory, admittedly, is horrible, but I’m drawing a blank.

But as Jen points out, there were historical methods available. Cast Western even has an entire collection of historical birth control devices, which includes the IUD and crocodile dung.

The Wikipedia article is particularly interesting, including this ‘misconception:’

Sneezing or urinating after sex are also completely ineffective, they do not prevent pregnancy and are not forms of birth control.

But alas it does not describe what folks did way, way back in the day, when locked in passion in the way back seat – if the carriage even had a way back seat.
Other articles, including one from Yale discuss varying types of suppositories and barrier methods, indicate that with the exception of the modern birth control pill in 1960, “there are no new methods” of birth control.

So why isn’t there birth control amongst the heroines in historical romance? I’d say there’s two reasons: one, it’s just not sexy. But more importantly, it messes up that odd requirement of sexual purity for the heroine. Candy and I were discussing this recently – there is a demand and expectation of virginity on the part of the heroine, and if there is an absence of hymen due to a man who is not the hero, it’s explained by several weary plot devices. Either, for example, she’s a widow (who of course has never known an orgasm), or she’s been induced into sexual relations by some nefarious and pitiable reasons that serve to restore nobility to her non-virginal self. The issue of virginity casts a wide shadow on heroines in historical romance, even as my cursory search for historical birth control revealed a number of folkloric methods that might easily have been passed from maid to maiden lady.

What’s your take? Are there romances that feature contraceptive-savvy heroines? Or are virginity and sexual purity a pair of powerful expectations on the part of the reader to the point where contraceptive knowledge would damage the heroine in our eyes?



Random Musings

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  1. 1
    snarkhunter says:

    In Mary Jo Putney’s Dancing On the Wind (the first historical I ever read, btw), Lucien and “Jane” (Kit) are getting hot and heavy on the divan, and she claims she needs to take “precautions,” which she indicates is some kind of birth control.

    Of course, she’s actually using that as an excuse to make good her escape w/o him noticing, but the fact is, she does use birth control as a believable excuse.

    (She also *doesn’t* use bc when they finally do the deed, but whatever.)

  2. 2
    Heather says:

    I just read a Karleen Koen historical, and her heroine was barren, which effectively solves the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Good plot device for maximum scrumpage.

    Or they are aristocrats and can just pass the baby off to the wet nurse/governess.

    Or somehow the main couple can go at it for months, and not get pregnant until the time is right, which is a bit too tidy for my tastes.

    I’d like to see a romance with obscure birth control descriptions, but I like my historicals grimy and realistic.

  3. 3
    Ashlery Fraser says:

    Well the negotiation of sex is a form of birth control though it is not often talked about. Things like withdrawal, and sex other than vaginal, including forms of frottage (breast, buttocks and underarms,) that last one was far more conmen then, than it is now.

    While I don’t have documentation historically I know both were I am from Newfoundland and Cuba (lots of friends from there) had a tradition of tonics and teas for menses. While many mothers tell their daughters its to help with cramps many are actually abortive that are taken for 3-5 days before menses on a regular basis, there by preventing some pregnancy’s with out having many of the moral compilations of “birth control” I would not in the least be surprised if historically there were things like this.


  4. 4
    Robin says:

    I think a vinegar or lemon juice soaked sponge was the most popular form of contraception for women, although there were various herbal concoctions one took to prevent conception, as well (or to facilitate early termination).  Let’s see, I can remember books by Lisa Kleypas (Forever, My Love), Robin Schone (pretty much all of them, with an interesting scene from Awaken, My Love to illustrate the point), Susan Johnson (her most recent historical, as well as some of her earlier books), Eloisa James (the one where the heroine thinks she’s too frail to have kids so her husband gives her one of those “remedies”), uhm, uhm, uhm, I know there are others.  Did Judith Ivory of Patricia Gaffney address this issue?  How about in Sleeping Beauty?

  5. 5
    Jennie says:

    Nicole Jordan’s characters frequently go about with silk pouches filled with “sponges with thin strings attached and bottles of liquid” (brandy or vinegar) that are usually supplied by the hero, who then makes a production of instructing the heroine in its uses, or he himself inserts it as part of foreplay.

    I also vaguely recall some of Catherine Coulter’s western books (Wild Star, etc) using similar birth control.

  6. 6
    Ellen says:

    Not about birth control but heroines’ virginity: a few friends and I have observed that several fantasy romance novels feature “revirginification.” The one I’m personally familiar with—not naming names here—features a heroine who is a prostitute, but whose body is returned to its “pure” state, hymen intact, just in time for Twu Wuv to come along. That was nearly a throw-the-book-across-the-room moment for me.

  7. 7
    Becky says:

    In “Border Bride” by Arnette Lamb the mistress uses a contraceptive sponge.  The heroine finds it and apparently knows enough about birth control to know what it is.

    In “The Actress & The Marquis” by Cindy Holbrook there is a very funny scene where the grandmother of the hero asks the heroine (whom she believes to be his actress/mistress) if she uses the “French letter,” and the heroine replies, “Of course.  And every other kind, English, Italian, Greek!  I know my translations, and… uhm… use them!”

  8. 8
    Spider says:

    I remember Susan Johnson’s usage of doushing with various liquids, but not much beyond that.

    Speaking of real life contraceptives, the ancient Mediterranean world (Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, etc.) used Silphium as a contraceptive (Pliny the Elder mentions it).  It was used so much that it became extinct!

  9. 9
    Ann Aguirre says:

    I can’t remember any mentions off the top of my head, but I do think I’d rather go without the crocodile dung in the scene.

  10. 10
    molly says:

    I didn’t read the lack of birth control as being because the Pure Innocent Virgin isn’t allowed to know such things. I thought the H/H don’t use it because evil whores hate babies, while virtuous heroines can’t wait to get knocked up by their true love. Or something.

  11. 11
    shaina says:

    C’mon, people, nobody’s read Diana Gabaldon? i KNOW you have. Claire does the whole sponge-in-oil thing, and teaches it to her friends. and i think there are also mentions of certain teas that can prevent conception or cause abortion. dangerous teas, but there ya go.

  12. 12
    nina armstrong says:

    In one of the early Amanda Quick’s-I think it was Seduction the heroine drinks an herbal tea. Other than that,I got nuthin’.

  13. 13
    Anna Rain says:

    The heroine in Jane Feather’s “Accidental Bride” uses herbs to keep from conceiving (though there is some confusion as to whether she injests them orally or stuffs them up her vagina) because one of her bestest friend is an herbalist. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read about the “herbal” method before.

    And in Susan Johnson’s “Legendary Lover” they use condoms (borrowed from some other lord at the ball) and then have arguments about whether they should keep doing it after they run out of condoms.

  14. 14
    azteclady says:

    I remember one of Elizabeth Lowell’s “Only…” westerns in which the vinegar doused sponge is used as a contraceptive… and that’s pretty much the only historical I remember where a contraceptive method is part of the plot in any way! Hmmm….

    spamfoiler: cent41 (but it’s more like two only)

  15. 15

    It doesn’t bother me when the heroine in a historical doesn’t use birth control as much as it bothers me when she doesn’t even thing about the possibility of getting pregnant.

    Having said that, I’ve read historicals where they use condoms, sponges, half of a scooped out lemon (yes it would work, like a diaphragm), withdrawal (coitus interruptus), herbal douches, herbal teas, rhythm method, and mutual masturbation. 

    Something like a vinegar soaked sponge may not be perfect by modern standards, but I’m willing to accept almost any historic method as a plot device.

  16. 16
    Jen says:

    Yay!  Thanks for the quote, Sarah, I squealed a bit.  Ok, a lot. 

    I think its that the virgin who understands birth control is somehow less pure.  Purity in these romance novels is a huge deal, and there is some weird view that the hero’s sperm must be completely accepted in order to make their love complete, a la Dawn Eden.  I read one novel where the pirate kept pulling out, as he had for all his lovers, and the way the heroine knew he loved her was that he came inside her- or, how was it put?  Was finally willing to give her a piece of himself that he had never shared.  I almost threw up.  “You dumb bint!” I yelled, feeling strangely British, “Don’t you know you are still engaged to another man!?”

    I think the reason heroines it’s the same reason that women, especially college women, are afraid to carry condoms- it implies that they know sex could happen, and that they are somehow slutty because of that.  Meanwhile, going to a bar knowing you want sex and NOT bringing protection and having unsafe sex is somehow more pure.  Likewise, we (well, someone) want our heroines way purer than regular “Grade A Virgin”- she also can’t masturbate, understand her body, have good sex with anyone else, have sex with women, or plan her babies. 

    One of the most interesting books I have read is “When Abortion Was a Crime.”  It discusses the shift to the idea that an abortion was a medical procedure end a pregnancy, whereas prior to that it was simply “bringing on menses.” (If anyone is interested, its also the book club book over at Pandagon, and the text is available online).

  17. 17

    I’ve *heard* that in the Victorian era (and before, I’m sure) married couples sometimes had anal sex exclusively if it would’ve been dangerous for the woman to have more children. That’s an undocumented fact, but fun all the same!

    In one of my books, the hero withdraws. In another, the heroine uses herbs (taken orally) because she don’t want no bebbies. Evil? Very possibly.

  18. 18
    sleeky says:

    The never thinking about pregnancy thing (*cough Suzanne Enoch cough*) drives me nuts too.

    I’ve been encountering contraception in hsitoricals more and more lately. In Jo Beverely’s Something Wicked, the heroine even writes a pamphlet about it. Others: The Duke by Galaen Foley (sponge), Fool for Love, the Eloisa James previously mentioned (sponge/called a sheath – but the heroine is incorrectly informed by her knowledgable friend that you can’t get pregnant the first time). One Night of Sin Foley (condom), One Night with a Prince by Sabrina Jeffries (condom).  I confess I kinda like to see the condoms, I get squicked out by all the promiscuity…

  19. 19
    Ann Aguirre says:

    I suspect we’d enjoy historical romances a great deal less if they weren’t sanitized. Romance authors seldom describe all the disgusting aspects of living in the past, especially in Medievals when people had rotten teeth, body odor and lice.

  20. 20

    I confess I kinda like to see the condoms, I get squicked out by all the promiscuity…

    I totally agree! But I also love the ol’ “he always uses a sheath, but forgets with his true love” plot device. I’m sorry, but I love it!

    Mock me if you will. Those of you who don’t have a magic hooha simply don’t understand. It’s a burden shared by only a few of us.

  21. 21
    Shipperx says:

    I don’t think that it’s always a case of the heroine being a virgin in romance novels.  Admittedly this was predominantly the case in the historicals written in the 1980s, but in recent years I’ve seen a fair number of historical romances that didn’t have viginal heroines.  It may not be the majority of the romances in print, but non-virginal heroines even “scandalous women” as heroines do exist.

    You are spot on about the birth control.  I can only think of a few instances where it’s addressed (usually by the guy using “French letters.”  But, you’re right, it tends to be one of the things which are glossed over in the novels.

  22. 22
    Jaded says:

    Being a virgin with a vast expanse of sexual knowledge, I just find the idea of the virgin who’s completely unaware of sex rather tedious. So I wouldn’t find knowledge of birth control methods, or sex in general, to be out of character or distracting, even in a historical.

  23. 23
    Becky says:

    In “Beast” by Judith Ivory the hero uses condoms at the beginning of the book with his married lover.  Her husband is such a man ho that the hero is afraid to have sex with her unless it’s wrapped.

  24. 24
    Little Miss Spy says:

    I read one where the girl used some block of wood that was a “folk” remedy. and quite a few (surprisingly) that use some sort of sponge like contraption. It is often remarked upon by the hero that he finds it extremely sexy, or puts it there himself. HMMMM…? Doubtful?

  25. 25
    Charlene says:

    Being a virgin with a vast expanse of sexual knowledge, I just find the idea of the virgin who’s completely unaware of sex rather tedious.

    But completely and totally accurate. There are women in the Victorian time and earlier who are known to have consulted their doctors for infertility but who were *shocked* to find out they had to have sex in order to get pregnant. Their husbands were impotent and they didn’t know there was a problem. They didn’t know sex *existed*. And I’m talking educated, intelligent women. Marie Stopes, the future birth control and sex education crusader, was one of them – and she had a double major with double honours in SCIENCE from Munich University.

  26. 26
    Piper says:

    Susan Johnson had one of her heroines use a cervical cap (sorry, I don’t remember which book…probably came out in the late 90s.)  Of course, the hero was so, er, “manly” that the cap was knocked out of place and they then had to use condoms.  Loretta Chase (?) wrote a book I read in high school about a female doctor in turn of the century NY who was advocating for BC rights.  Good book, if I remember correctly, and described well the impact of the Comstock Laws and difficulties in being an advocate for BC in those days.  Check out a bio of Margaret Sanger for even scarier descriptions.
    Regarding the virgin not knowing anything…two points.  One:  that bullshit about not getting pregnant the first time is STILL going around and most sex information comes from a woman’s friends.  Translate that to women in the 1800s and you have a recipe for ignorant disaster.  Two:  I don’t mind the virgin not knowing anything.  I’m more skeptical about her not freaking out that someone is touching and invading her hooha, having multiple orgasms and loving sex from the get go. Statistics today would indicate that many young women don’t masterbate and, um, get to know themselves better.  Thanks to the Hooha Monologues perhaps, the message is getting out (and has obviously reached the women of this board…yay!)  But a woman from the 1800s getting jiggy wi’ it?  First, consider that she probably doesn’t know that it is a source of enjoyment.  Secondly, consider how badly “it” probably would have smelled.  Ugh.  I wouldn’t want to put my hands on/in it either.

  27. 27
    Madd says:

    Candice Hern’s In the Thrill of the Night the heroine drinks a concoction before the event in order to ward off pregnancy. This method was suggested by one of her fellow “merry widows”.

    Or somehow the main couple can go at it for months, and not get pregnant until the time is right, which is a bit too tidy for my tastes.

    While we were living together, my man and I had unprotected sex for about a year before we conceived … two weeks after we got married. Is that tidy or what? I’m pregnant with my third child right now and it took us something like six months of “baby dancing” to conceive. Yes, some people get pregnant at the drop of a hat, but for some it takes months, sometimes even years, before it happens.

  28. 28
    Invisigoth says:

    I don’t recall reading any romances that talked about BC, but Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White went into graphic description of the prostitutes douching themselves almost violently after sex to avoid pregnancy.

  29. 29
    Madd says:

    Pennyroyal, and tansy I think, is what was used in the concoction mention in Candice Hern’s book. The abortifacients prevented implantation, but were chancy because if you weren’t careful about the dosing you could end up poisoning yourself and causing damage your organs.

  30. 30
    Invisigoth says:

    Jen said “…it’s the same reason that women, especially college women, are afraid to carry condoms- it implies that they know sex could happen, and that they are somehow slutty because of that.  Meanwhile, going to a bar knowing you want sex and NOT bringing protection and having unsafe sex is somehow more pure.”

    When I was in college, I had a neighbor who was 2 years younger than me and still in high school, inform me that “nice girls don’t use birth control because that means you’re planning to have sex and nice girls don’t plan to have sex.”  I wasn’t surprised when she wound up pregnant a few months later.

    and now 20+ years later, I occasionally substitute teach and unfortunately I’ve heard almost those exact words come out of the mouths of a few of the students.

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