The Awkward History of Americans Talking About Contraception

We've called condoms "skins," "rubber goods," and even "Merry Widows" -- and although it's been legal to talk about contraception since 1938, we'd still rather not.

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The ACLU announced earlier this week that a California school district is being sued by parents and students over its abstinence-only sex education program. Among other affronts to the concept of comprehensive sex education, the program's textbooks never once mention condoms -- not even in the chapters on protecting oneself from STIs and unintended pregnancy. If the program is forced to introduce contraception into their literature, they can look to a long, awkward history of trying to figure out how to do it.

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Manufacturers, health officials, and the public have found numerous ways to talk about contraception without really having to talk about it, as illustrated by a recent post from Collector's Weekly on the history of the condom in the U.S. Among the "creative relabeling" methods, condoms were marketed as "sheaths, skins, shields, capotes, and 'rubber goods' for the 'gents.'" Their packaging found artistic ways to evoke eroticism without specifically saying anything about sex:

Subtle hints at the tawdry or dangerous worked well for condoms, with brands like Devil Skin, Shadows, and Salome hitting the shelves in the '20s and '30s. One popular label, Merry Widows, was named after a long-standing slang term for condoms that implied a certain illicit pleasure.

Sarah Forbes describes early condom tins as very ornate, hinting at a kind of decadence as well as "masculinity, strength, and endurance." Many companies emphasized testosterone-fueled virility with names like Spartans, Buffalos, Stags, Pirates, Trojans, Romeos, or Knights. Other brands evoked an exotic, Far Eastern world of harems and belly-dancers that automatically triggered sex in many adult minds.

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That most of the talk surrounding condoms has been circuitous dates back to 1873, when the Comstock Act criminalized any and all forms of contraception and euphemisms became a legal necessity.

Partly because of strict restrictions on any talk of contraception, and partly because of an emerging knowledge of communicable disease (manifested by the rapid epidemic of VD among U.S. troops during World War I), condoms began to build their reputation as prophylactics -- and contraception became understood as a public health issue. That was the point where "protection," "safety," and other words with health implications became common.

While men's health was integral to the marketing of condoms, the modern understanding of contraception as exactly that -- prevention primarily from babies rather than disease -- had less to do with women's health and more to do with population control. The term "birth control" entered the lexicon in 1914, when it was coined by Margaret Sanger, a controversial hero in the field of reproductive rights.

By "birth control," Sanger meant to put words to the idea of "voluntary, conscious control of the birth rate by means that prevent conception," and not, she asserted, "contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced."

Although the health of women and children were also a priority, a lot of what Sanger and her followers were talking about when they referred to "birth control" is deeply disturbing by today's standards: they believed that certain populations -- specifically minorities and the poor -- should be kept from proliferating. Considering its strong eugenic undertones, it's surprising that the term is still so widely used. Perhaps it's been able to persist only because we've abandoned its antonym: "birth release," for those judged worthy of procreation. In 1916, the New York Times quoted a prominent doctor who employed the term while despairing of how "birth control among the poor is a problem, but race suicide among the middle classes is a racial menace which threatens by its influence to defeat the highest ideals of the nation."

On the upside, the introduction of the idea of birth control heralded a new era of talking openly about contraception. In a 1923 editorial for the New York Times, Sanger praised a bill that would allow doctors to discuss contraception with their patients:

Whatever the outcome, this bill means that birth control is no longer looked upon, even in the judicial and legislative field, as a topic "obscene and indecent," worthy only of ribald jest and suggestive leer.

In 1938, the Comstock Era officially ended, and contraception became legal, if still morally ambiguous. The Atlantic's archives contain a 1939 editorial by Eduard Lindeman on "The Responsibilities of Birth Control," which put this political and cultural shift into perspective:

Our society has already paid too heavy a price for its prejudicial attitude toward birth control. So long as the sale of contraceptives remained a 'bootleg' enterprise, nobody could be honest about it. The manufacturer, the distributer, and the consumer were all involved in a conspiracy.

...

One of the real aims of the birth control movement is to bring more truth into the realm of sex experience, to lift it from the cellar of people's minds and place it in the upper air where the sunlight may shine upon it. This can never happen so long as people who consider themselves 'good' continue to regard it with fear, secretiveness, and envy, while the less good degrade it to the level of vice and vulgarity.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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