Condoms: beneath the sheath

19 November 2014

The Institute of Sexology opens 20 November 2014. A candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts, it features over 200 objects spanning art, rare archival material, erotica, film and photography. In one last attempt to whet your appetite, Taryn Cain tells us a little about the history of the condom, some examples of which will be on display.

The original condoms, which first showed up over 3,000 years ago, probably weren’t all that good for safe sex. They were more likely to protect you from the elements than from your sexual partner. The first documented use of a condom in Europe was in 1564 by the anatomist Fallopia (who also gave his name to fallopian tubes).

In the 16th century condoms were used primarily to prevent STDs. Syphilis, for example, was often fatal and raged through Europe for over 300 years. With the discovery of spermatozoa in the 17th century, the church became outraged over the use of barriers impeding their progress. By the 18th century, the condom’s reputation amongst medical professionals had firmly been cemented as a tool for philanderers, prostitutes and the immoral.

Despite this, they proved quite popular among the upper and middle classes. The working classes finally gained access to condoms in the 19th century, thanks to Mr Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanised rubber in 1839.

 This condom is made of animal gut membrane.

This condom is made of animal gut membrane.

In Japan and China, condoms were in use before the 15th century. In the former, condoms were made of tortoiseshell and, later, thin leather. In China they were made out of oiled paper or lamb intestines. This didn’t much differ from condoms in 18th century Europe which were made out of linen or animal intestine.

They were often one-size-fits-all and had to be dipped in water before use. The condom market in the 18th century was dominated by two rivals, a Mrs Phillips and a Mrs Perkins, but there was a “simple” recipe to make your own at home if you were so inclined:

Intestina caeca (the appendix) of sheep soaked for some hours in water, turned inside out, macerated again in weak alkaline lye changed every twelve hours, scraped carefully to abstract the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats: then exposed to the vapour of burning brimstone, washed with soap and water; blown up, dried, cut to length of 7-8 inches, bordered at the open end with a riband

 Collection of sexual aids in a wooden box, Japan, 1930-1939.

Collection of sexual aids in a wooden box, Japan, 1930-1939.

The first female condom was reputed to have been used over 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece. King Minos was cursed to ejaculate snakes and scorpions, which usually killed his partners. Finally his physician came up with the idea of inserting the bladder of a goat into his lovers, thus catching all the poisonous beasts before they could do any damage.

Although this story may not be true, what is true is that Marie Stopes, a 20th century birth control activist and supporter of positive eugenics, promoted one of the first female condoms in 1923. It was made of thick, vulcanised rubber with a steel coil rim. Like other rubber contraceptives at the time it could be washed and reused.

The first modern female condom was released in 1993 and from the start suffered a PR problem. Women found it strange to look at, difficult to insert, and feared it ‘rustled’ during use. The media were generally disinterested in its many advantages and instead chose to ridicule it to their audience. At one point it was even likened to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

 Female condom.

Female condom.

In 1998 things started to look up. The manufacturer, Wisconsin Pharmacal, received a petition from Zimbabwe signed by 30,000 women asking for the condom to be made available in their country. As the Developed world was deriding it, the Developing world had sat up in attention. In places where women had little access to medical care and little bodily agency, a condom that was female-controlled, could be inserted many hours before sex and be safely reused, found itself a home.

Where the name ‘condom’ came from, no one knows. It could have come from a town in France; it could have been named after a physician to King Charles II; it could have originated in the Latin language. There is no real agreement on its etymology.

What is known is that ‘condum’ was first penned in a poem in 1706, and later, ‘condon’ turned up in a literary journal in 1709. The rest of the time, the humble condom has been known by many different names, such as the male sheath, gloves, armour, the English riding coat, French letter and machine.

 An advertisement for safe sex from 1992.

An advertisement for safe sex from 1992.

Both Casanova and the Marquis de Sade wrote about condoms. The former said that the inventor ‘must have been a good man’. Freud wasn’t a fan, although he felt it preferable to coitus interruptus. Jane Austen recommended separate beds over any sort of contraception. The Catholic Church only grudgingly accepted the use of condoms in 2010 and then only to prevent serious disease such as HIV.

The National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) conducted 3 surveys of sexual habits in 1990, 2000 and 2010. It turns out condoms are becoming more popular as the decades go by, particularly among men with new partners.

 French sexual health poster: "Be as you want with a condom."

French sexual health poster: “Be as you want with a condom.”

In the Dazed sex survey, conducted in September 2014, gay men were found to be the most careful demographic, with over 50% “always using a condom” and less than 5% saying “never”.

The first rubber condoms were hand dipped, of dubious quality and had a lifespan of 3 months. When latex condoms appeared in the 1930s, they were thinner, had a lifespan of 3-5 years and were far more popular than their predecessors, at least until penicillin arrived in the 1960s. The original female condoms were made of polystyrene as it conducts heat better than latex, isn’t affected by chemicals such as oil based lubricants and is less likely to provoke an allergy.

 An advertisement for safe sex from 193.

An advertisement for safe sex from 193.

In the 21st century, both the female condom and the regular condom are going through a revolution. The female condom market has suddenly become competitive, which means women may have more choices in the future. Similarly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tired of the boring old condom design, have offered $100,000 for someone to invent something new. It’s exciting times for those who like to play safely.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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