New Worlds: Birth Control

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

A few years back I was invited to speak on a panel at the American Library Association’s annual meeting, on the topic of “Technology and Science Fiction.” Since I’m a fantasy writer for the most part, not a science fiction writer, I chose to talk about how the use of magic in fantasy can show us which technologies we really wish we had . . . and which ones we’ve come to rely on so much, we have a hard time imagining life without them.

One of my examples was birth control.

Because over and over again in fantasy novels, I see magical answers to the problem of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Charms the characters wear to prevent conception. Contraceptive herbs. Much more rarely, mundane objects like condoms. We’re so used to the idea that women can choose not to become pregnant, that our characters can have sex without fearing that particular consequence, that we weave contraception into our made-up worlds. Even when we don’t mention it explicitly, the behavior of our characters often implies it’s being taken care of somehow — if only because the author never bothered to realize this was a potential issue.

Let’s start with one of the most widespread and ancient options. Condoms are pretty simple to invent, though prior to the invention of latex, they weren’t great. They were generally made out of fabric or intestine, and in some cases only covered the head (glans) of the penis; Japanese condoms of that type were rigid and made out of shell or horn. They do have the merit of protecting against sexually transmitted diseases, but they dull sensation and used to be very prone to either breaking or coming off, because they were held on with ribbons.

But in some ways, the bigger problem with condoms — or perhaps I should say “problem” — is that they require men to take steps to prevent pregnancy, and men often object to that. The majority of other contraceptive methods put that burden on women. Ever wonder why there are birth control pills for women, but not for men? It isn’t because there’s some biochemical reason why male fertility can’t be suppressed. It’s because attempts to develop such a thing have run aground on men’s complaints about side effects . . . side effects that women regularly cope with and accept. Contraception is not and never has been a level field, where men take equal responsibility for their half of the fertility equation.

On the female side of things, we’ve developed a number of different options. A spermicide kills sperm; recipes for such things date back to the second millennium BCE — though between you and me, I don’t want anything involving crocodile dung in my pharmacoepia. Sperm-killing chemicals are sometimes used in conjunction with barrier methods, like a female condom, a contraceptive sponge, a diaphragm, or a cervical cap. Those latter two go back quite far in history, as the notion of blocking the entrance to the cervix to prevent conception was fairly obvious, but like condoms, they were less comfortable and effective before the advent of modern materials.

If you use the phrase “birth control,” though, what will come to mind for most people is the direct suppression of female fertility, usually through the use of hormones. These days you can get that through an intrauterine device, a vaginal ring, a skin patch, or injections, but the poster child for the concept is the pill.

When that hit the market in the 1960s, it was revolutionary. Family planning wasn’t a new idea — the movement for such things started in the 19th century — but unlike condoms, the pill didn’t require any cooperation from one’s partner, and unlike all the barrier devices, it didn’t require the would-be lovers to stop and take steps before getting on with their fun. Women could simply take some medication, and for the first time, be reliably in control of their own fertility.

Or was it the first time? I used to think that all those fantasy novels with their miraculous contraceptive herbs were simple wish-fulfillment, transposing the modern birth control pill into low-tech plant form. Then I learned about silphium, a plant used in the ancient Mediterranean as a contraceptive — and, at least by some accounts, so effective that it was over-harvested to the point of extinction. But we don’t know if that’s true, because we don’t know what silphium was: a species of giant fennel? Something else? For all we know it still exists, but we haven’t identified it because it isn’t actually a great contraceptive. Or it is indeed extinct, and so we’ll never be able to test its efficacy. Regardless of the answer, it’s certainly true that an herb existed which was reputed to be very good at preventing pregnancy . . . and that’s enough to justify building it into a fictional world.

But this isn’t simply a question of the technology or ecology of your setting. As soon as you talk about birth control, you’re talking about sex, and then it takes approximately 0.031 nanoseconds for the arbiters of morality to leap into the fray.

Is it acceptable in your fictional society for people to have sex for pleasure, rather than for procreation? Is a woman shirking her duty to provide her husband with children if she takes steps to avoid that? Are women meant to suffer through pregnancy and childbirth, as punishment for Eve’s sin? These arguments almost always focus on women, not men, because women’s sexuality is almost always seen as the one that needs controlling. The arbiters of morality fear that birth control will lead to an increase in immorality — that if people can have sex safely, they’ll run out and have lots of it, with anybody they can. (The same argument is also used against the vaccine for the human papillomavirus vaccine, which causes almost all cervical cancer and is sexually transmitted.)

As near as we can tell from the numbers, that isn’t actually true. Risk seems not to be as much of a deterrent as you might assume: if people really want to have sex, then they will, and consequences are a worry for later. This is also why abstinence-focused sex education has been found, in study after study, to have little effect on “age of sexual initiation; number of sexual partners; and rates of sexual abstinence, condom use, vaginal sex, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections.” Restricting access to birth control doesn’t prevent sex; it only prevents safe sex.

And contrary to what some assume, the attempt to prevent conception isn’t simply driven by a hedonistic desire for consequence-free pleasure. In the upcoming weeks we’ll look at what pregnancy and childbirth mean for women — and especially what they’ve meant in the past. Spoiler: it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Birth Control — 13 Comments

  1. [ ” In the upcoming weeks we’ll look at what pregnancy and childbirth mean for women — and especially what they’ve meant in the past. Spoiler: it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.” ]

    Men, MENMENMENMEN need this education desperately. See this, in which what it really means TO THE WOMAN if she’s required to have more than one husband and children by all the husbands — and to, of course, as the proposer of this solution to China’s wife shortage, to fulfill MEN’S NEEDS AND URGES. This is pure uncel thinking too.

    What’s wrong with this picture, hmmmmmm . . . .

    [….] “I’m not denying the advantages of monogamy here, such as how exclusive long-term relationships can benefit kids’ growth and education,” Ng wrote in his column, according to the website SupChina, which first reported in English about the controversial remarks. “But given China’s skewed sex ratio, it’s necessary to consider allowing polyandry legally.”

    Plus, it would just be more efficient, he continued, suggesting that women would have no trouble meeting the physical needs of multiple husbands.

    “It’s common for prostitutes to serve more than 10 clients in a day,” Ng wrote, before taking off on another offensive tangent. “Making meals for three husbands won’t take much more time than for two husbands,” he added.[….]

    • Maggie Shen King’s “An Excess Male” is a near-future novel featuring among other things a polyandrous China. Caveat: I haven’t actually read it yet — read the sample chapters but since then it’s been languishing in my terrifyingly large TBR pile. But it looked super interesting.

    • These quotes sound suspiciously like a Swiftian “Modest Proposal.” Are we absolutely certain he was being sincere, or has something perhaps been lost in translation?

      Forgive my scepticism, but in our current media (both social and regular) climate, things are quite often jumped on and circulated without proper evaluation as to veracity and/or context—particularly when originating in nations that are at the moment considered to be our political foes.

      Unfortunately, I cannot read the actual article because it requires a subscription, so possibly my scepticism is unfounded. But it is my understanding that while the Chinese government has relaxed its one-child policy, it is certainly not advocating a return to unfettered reproduction rates, which would be counterproductive to the intent of the original birth restrictions—I cannot imagine it would sanction the kind of population increase that would result from such a scenario.

      I could also be wildly wrong on this. It just seems too absurd to be taken at face value.

  2. Sex education is about a lot more than the mechanics of the act. It’s about a woman’s right to say no and have her choice respected. It is also supposed to be about boys getting their heads out of their trousers and not reacting to peer pressure to get another notch in their belt.

    But don’t try to tell a fundamentalist that.

    • Yeah, the double standard of “it’s on women to avoid tempting men, not on men to refrain from being tempted” and also “but women don’t get to say no and be respected” is a lethal one — sometimes literally.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Birth Control - Swan Tower

  4. Many years ago I took a Jeep tour in the desert around Palm Springs, CA. Our guide was a botanist and a geologist. He showed us a plant that he said ancient tribes in the area had figured out had some contraceptive qualities. They had noticed that when birds ate the seeds of this plant they had fewer eggs in their nests. Sorry I can’t remember what the plant was

    • I should have mentioned that there are many plants besides silphium that have been used as contraceptives! They’re just not as effective as modern methods, or they have worse side effects (or both). Silphium is noteworthy for how well it reportedly worked, not because it was the only option in the world.

  5. In Dreamsnake, Vonda McIntyre posited a society where contraception was mutually practiced by men and women (through, iirc, bio-control of temperature… knowing Vonda, it would have been feasible but I cannot explain the mechanics right now). The key thing was that it was considered shameful for a man not to be able to hold up his end of the process, and there is a young man who inadvertently got a girl pregnant, and thereafter was rejected as a sexual partner because the lack of training was his. I loved that as a bit of world building.

    • That’s a nice touch, yeah! Alyc and I have built contraception for everybody into our Rook and Rose books, too, and make a point of showing that it’s a thing men do as well as women. (Though for women it has the additional benefit of suppressing your period, which is a detail we only manage to bring up in the second book.)

  6. If you google you can kick up a nice YouTube video on How to Make a Victorian Condom. You use lamb intestine, which is ordinarily used for sausage casings. It’s a lengthy and fiddly process, and the resulting condom is not that pleasant to use. They were expensive and washed for re-use.
    There was also an entire class issue about making birth control available. The knowledge was passed around among the upper classes (none of the Prince of Wales’s many mistresses had unwanted pregnancies) but not shared with the hoi polloi. Letting them know would lead to licentiousness and unbridled lust, lowering the moral tone of the nation irreparably.

    • Yeah, I’ll grant that pre-modern condoms don’t sound very comfortable. On the other hand, neither is syphilis?

      Hell yes to the class issues. Morality police aren’t only concerned with gender.