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1x11 | Sex Ed

Hello, everyone. You may have noticed that this episode is being released on a Friday, rather than a Thursday. Over the last few months, while working on this podcast and on a personal blog I’ve gotten to know my independent work style better and I’ve decided that Friday release dates actually make a lot more sense. I originally chose Thursdays because I read that podcasts tend to receive more downloads if they’re released on Thursdays rather than Fridays, but I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference and I’m not trying to become a super famous podcaster or anything. So, I think moving to Fridays will make it easier for me to produce the quality of work I want.

In this episode I’ll be talking about Victorian birth control and sexual health in that era.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

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Throughout the Victorian era large numbers of people moved from rural areas to urban areas. This led to a lot of different changes both societally and in people’s personal lives. In the past, when more people worked on farms they often had large numbers of children to help them with farm work, but this wasn’t necessary once they moved to cities and got industrial jobs. As the nature of work changed, so to did the nature of family life. Men of the new middle class wanted to focus on their careers for a little while before settling down, which meant people were getting married and having children later in life. Couples of all social classes were choosing to have fewer children, a decision which was especially appealing to women who feared dying in childbirth, as that was much more common then.

Of course, the desire to have fewer children and to control your own fertility was not new to the Victorian era. Anthropologists and archaeologists have found evidence of birth control methods dating back thousands of years. In England and America in the 19th century, innovations and moral debates changed the methods most commonly used.

Apart from the age-old method of coitus interruptus, the Victorians used a variety of methods. One was the use of spermicides, though they didn’t have the correct information on which substances actually worked. They used some simple, natural things like olive oil, pomegranate pulp, or ginger, as well as questionable things like Coca-Cola, Lysol, and tobacco juice. Sometimes these possible-spermicides were applied topically. Other times, a small bit of sponge attached to a ribbon would be soaked in a solution and then inserted before sex, then removed after and washed.

Another option was vaginal douching, which was one of the first widely available forms of contraception. Unfortunately for the Victorians, there isn’t much evidence that it was effective. There were some reasons to use it other than contraception, so it could be sold out in the open on pharmacy shelves in understated packaging. Most forms of contraception had to be sold discreetly, such as cervical caps which women could often use without a man being aware of it.

Condoms were also an option, as they had been for hundreds of years, but they weren’t used so much for contraception as they were for men who were fooling around and didn’t want to catch a venereal disease. At the beginning of the Victorian era, condoms were made out of animal intestines which had been bleached in alkaline and smoked in brimstone. They were reusable, but still too expensive for most lower class men. This changed after Charles Goodyear created vulcanized rubber and condoms of that material could be mass produced and had a shelf life of a few months.

This was an important innovation because venereal disease was a prevalent problem in the Victorian era. One of the worst at the time was syphilis, which had no cure and wasn’t always the easiest to diagnose. It came with a wide variety of symptoms, which could lead to a misdiagnosis of some other disease, and it was inconsistent. Someone with syphilis might go a few years without showing symptoms, which made them think they were cured and had nothing to worry about. Sometimes the symptoms were disfiguring, leading to an intense stigma against infected people. Syphilis could also lead to infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths, and children born with the disease might die young or have serious health complications.

An unfortunate reality of being a Victorian woman was that your unfaithful husband might bring home a venereal disease, which you then got too, but you’d be kept in the dark about it by both your husband and your doctor. While receiving treatments, the doctor, paid for by your husband, would keep the diagnosis from you under the guise of doctor-patient confidentiality. Telling you what you’d contracted would also mean telling you what another patient - your husband - had contracted. Of course, Victorian women weren’t stupid, so plenty of them figured out what was going on.

The proliferation of venereal disease in the Victorian era was frequently blamed on prostitution. It’s difficult to know prevalent it was during that time because the records we have aren’t exact. One contemporary estimate stated that 1 in 5 women in London worked as prostitutes, but modern historians believe that number was inflated in order to scare the public into supporting moral reforms. In reality, it was probably more like 1 in 50 women in London, though that’s still a large number. The upper classes believed lower class women prostituting themselves was a necessary evil because it was the only way for their sons to get proper sexual experience and (sarcastic) to keep up their health. This was especially so when people started waiting longer before getting married and having children. All kinds of social reformers had ideas about how this social system needed to change. Some reformers condemned all premarital and extramarital sex outright. They were against the double standard that criticized women for the same behavior, and said that men needed to learn how to control themselves the way women did. Other reformers believed that wider access to birth control methods and related education would solve the problem. They thought the main reason young men were visiting prostitutes but postponing marriage was because they wanted sexual experience without the risk of having children, and they didn’t believe that to be an option within marriage.

Still, marriage wouldn’t have been an option for most British military men, as very few of them were allowed to get married, so prostitution was big business in garrison towns. As a result, an estimated 1 in 3 soldiers treated for illness had a venereal disease. The British government decided to take action, but not by allowing more of their men to get married. No. Instead, they passed the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s. These acts required all prostitutes in garrison towns to be physically examined every two weeks to check if they had VD. Of course, the women weren’t exactly eager to follow this rule, so the police were able to bring in any woman suspected of being a prostitute for the exams. The women had to either agree to the exam or they were thrown in jail, so they really had no choice. If a woman was found to have VD, then she was confined for a set period of time or until her symptoms cleared up. Originally, the specific length of confinement was three months but it was later extended to a year.

These acts were seen by activist groups as violating the human rights of these women, and they had a sexist double standard because the prostitutes’ clients weren’t required to undergo any examination. In 1869, the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was established, but they initially didn’t allow women in their meetings. So, another group formed called the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. It was created by the activist Josephine Butler along with Florence Nightingale and the journalist Harriet Martineau. The acts were finally repealed in the 1880s, and the backlash against them is credited as one of the main things which started Britain’s women’s rights movement.

So far in this episode I’ve talked about contraception and venereal disease, but what would a Victorian woman do if her birth control methods and preventative measures didn’t work? You might have already heard about how dangerous "back alley" abortions were during that time, but you might not have heard as much about their versions of abortion pills. They were surprisingly common at the time, and coded advertisements were printed in newspapers. In 1868, a writer with the British Medical Journal looked into newspaper ads targeting women who were, quote "temporarily indisposed", and found that over half of them were actually ads for some type of abortion service. The brands included "Farrer’s Catholic Pills", "Dr. Peter’s French Renovating Pills", "Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound", and "Madame Drunette’s Lunar Pills". Their ads contained language like promising to "restore female regularity", to "remove from the system every impurity", and to cure obstructions, menstrual suppressions, or delayed periods. The way they cleared out your system to get your period going again was by inducing a miscarriage. Sometimes the ads explicitly said that miscarriage was a possible side effect, and women reading the magazines knew that miscarriage was actually the main intended effect. 

Unfortunately, the abortion pill industry was not at all regulated, so sometimes the treatment wouldn’t work, or was actually poisonous. Instead of pills, some women opted for the seemingly more natural option of drinking tea made of plants like pennyroyal, foxglove, Queen Anne’s lace, tansy, or savin. Like the pills, this was sometimes ineffective and sometimes poisonous. Some other methods of attempting to induce a miscarriage were hot baths and gin, extreme exertion, veterinary medicines, and quote "a controlled fall down a flight of stairs".

At the time, people didn’t have as good a grasp on how exactly conception and fetal development worked, and the popular opinion was that abortion was acceptable up until the "quickening", which was when the mother first felt the fetus moving. Of course, if you were already at that point in the pregnancy but still wanted an abortion, you could easily lie about it. In the United States, the first large group of people to argue for outlawing abortion wasn’t a group with religious or moral arguments. It was the American Medical Association, founded in 1857. It’s at that time that the medical profession was becoming more professionalized and standardized. Women couldn’t get medical degrees, but there were women referred to as "female doctors" who had medical training and usually focused on women’s reproductive health. When the AMA was established, male doctors wanted to get rid of their less-educated, female competition. They worked to outlaw abortions and make women’s health their exclusive domain. They were led by Horatio Storer, known as the father of American gynecology, who thought abortion was both murder and a social crime because it meant women were resisting their natural roles in the world as mothers and wives. These doctors were also worried that abortion was the cause of the declining birth rates among white women, and they thought this would lead to America’s white population losing power, especially after abolition. Besides all these reasons, there were also growing numbers of people who believed abortion to be against their religion, and new scientific understandings of fetal development led to more debate about when exactly life begins. By 1900, abortion was a felony in every US state.

This legislation was helped along by Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice activist, whose name is now tied to anti-obscenity laws. In 1873, the Comstock Act made it illegal to use the US Postal service to send contraceptives, abortion drugs, or obscene and immoral materials. This meant those things had to go underground and fewer people had access to information about sexual health.

The most notable publication on birth control had been published a few decades earlier, but there were still various laws like the Comstock Act in effect at that time. In 1832, Dr. Charles Knowlton anonymously printed a pamphlet titled "Fruits of Philosophy", which was originally just given to his patients. Someone else reprinted it in Boston, but this time included Knowlton’s name. For the publication, Knowlton was fined fifty dollars, prosecuted three times, and served three months of hard labor. After being released, Knowlton continued reprinting it.

The pamphlet was published in London multiple times, but the most commonly available edition was published by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh in 1877. The two were convicted of obscenity and sentenced to jail, but had the sentence overturned. Their trial sparked public interest in "The Fruits of Philosophy", and as a result more people read the publication.

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Thanks for listening.


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