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.



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.

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.

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.

In the 1940s, Planned Parenthood became the most vocal proponent of contraception, and the term "family planning" was introduced as a less radical way of talking about birth control that nonetheless retained focus on family size instead of sexuality. But by the 1960s, the prevention of pregnancy was becoming less of a broad population issue and more of a personal concern. Turned intimate, the new discourse concerned a woman's right to sexual expression and to control over her body. When Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published by the Boston Women's Health Collective in 1971, its preface asserted the attainment of this control through public knowledge about contraception:

This knowledge has freed many of us from the constant energy-draining anxiety about becoming pregnant. It has made our pregnancies better because they no longer happen to us, but we actively choose them and enthusiastically participate in them. It has made our parenthood better because it is our choice rather than our destiny. This knowledge has freed us from playing the role of mother if it is not a role that fits us. It has given us a sense of a larger life space to work in, an invigorating and challenging sense of time and room to discover the energies and talents that are in us, to do the work we want to do. And one of the things we most want to do is to help make this freedom of choice, this life span, available to every woman.

In 1965, the Supreme Court made contraception legal for married couples; in 1972, it made access possible for single people as well. Meanwhile, in the late 50s and early 60s, the "magic pill" Sanger once envisioned became a reality. The development and legalization of the Pill was a definitive moment in contraception, which is likely why we continue to refer to this particular drug as the drug, with a capital P.

As with the repurposing of condoms for disease prevention, the Pill was initially approved only for the treatment of menstrual disorders. But "women's health" took on new meaning in 1960, when the pharmaceutical product was approved by the FDA as a form of oral birth control. Despite fears about the safety of continuous use of the drug, it quickly caught on. By 20 years after it was first developed, 30 million women worldwide, including 10 million in the U.S., were on the Pill, allowing it to become a way of life.


As of last year, birth control is considered preventive care, required by Department of Health and Human Services to be covered by private insurers. And the U.S. government characterizes its family planning services, aided by Title X, as "educational, comprehensive medical or social activities which enable individuals, including minors, to determine freely the number and spacing of their children and to select the means by which this may be achieved." We see this freedom to plan and make personal decisions reflected in the concept of "emergency contraception," including the brand name "Plan B."

On the horizon for contraceptive technologies is "the Pill for men." If this becomes a reality, it will be interesting to see what place it finds for itself in the conversation about reproductive health and rights. Will paternal responsibility become the new face of women's health, allowing female partners to forgo the pill and its hormonal side effects? Or will it be thought of in terms of extra insurance for men who do not wish to become fathers? Certainly, it will put a stronger emphasis on equal responsibility in all of these matters. And just as certainly, there will be those who would rather avoid talking about it altogether.