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.