The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975

By Hera Cook | Go to book overview

2
'Nature is a Blind Dirty Old Toad':
The Withdrawal Method

During the 200 years from the 1770s to the 1970s there was a slow transformation of women's reproductive experience. These changes in fertility rates and in marriage can best be understood as the result of a long-drawn-out shift from communal, indirect control of fertility to effective, direct, female control of fertility. Indirect methods of fertility control include delaying marriage, male recourse to prostitution, breastfeeding, and sexual abstinence for reasons other than fertility control. Fertility change has largely remained the province of demographers, whose interest is in population change, so arguments about the causes of shifts in fertility rates have attracted little critical attention from historians of women. Until recently historical demographers gave only passing mentions to the connection between changing sexual mores and fertility rates. They claimed, correctly, that historians have shown that individual, direct control of fertility had always been possible. Historians have described a host of methods, with varying degrees of effectiveness, which could be used to prevent population growth. Infanticide and abstinence from sexual intercourse are very effective methods, withdrawal and traditional methods of abortion less so, while methods such as the use of herbal pessaries or the early skin condoms were probably highly ineffective. There were also a number of 'methods', including, for example, wearing amulets and getting up and walking around the room after intercourse, that had no effect on fertility at all.1 The claim that

1. N. E. Himes, The Medical History of Contraception (1936; 1970). A. M. Carr-Saunders, The
Population Problem
(1922). A. McLaren, A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day

-40-

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