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IF THE SHEATH FITS
A brief overview of condom history
By Cindy Spencer Pape
A question that often arises among romance authors is whether or not to have their heroes suit up. Dress the soldier. Wear a raincoat. In other words, use protection, act responsibly, practice safe sex. The condom has become one of the more debated aspects of the romance genre, especially erotic romance.
Arguments on both sides can be fierce. Many authors and readers argue that it’s irresponsible of fiction to not show characters engaging in (and presumably enjoying) safe sex. Others maintain that the romance novel is inherently a fantasy, and to interrupt the moment with mundane precautions would detract from the reader’s enjoyment. While both sides have valid points to be made, the decision gets even trickier when writing a historical romance.
Condoms have been available, in one form or another, for a long, long time. Whether or not our historical heroes would have had ready access to them or any inclination to use them depends on a lot of variables: when and where the hero lives being the most important. Wealth, religion, educational level—all of these can factor in. And of course, depending on how it was made and what it was made of, the efficacy varied wildly. So to get it right, an author actually needs to know a little bit about the origins of the little foil packet.
When I started writing Marry Me, Marietta, for a special Ellora’s Cave project a few years ago, I had to do some serious digging to find out what my Victorian physician hero would have access to and use. Of course, once I started, I became fascinated by the research and had to know more.
Nobody knows exactly when the condom was invented. There are Egyptian hieroglyphics roughly 3000 years old that show a man wearing what looks like a linen sheath over his penis. Nobody is sure if this was to prevent disease or pregnancy, or just for decoration. There are rumors of the Romans using this or that for contraception, but no definite references to what could be considered a condom. Cave paintings in France dated to around 100 AD again show men wearing a colored sheath, but again, we have no idea why.
However, people have been trying to not get pregnant, for one reason or another, almost as long as others have been trying to get pregnant. And it’s just common sense to put a barrier between the sperm and the womb. So the use of homemade condoms could go back—well—as at least as long as humans have been making sausage. Given the obviousness of a length of sheep gut with a knot tied in it, it seems likely that these relatively risky versions have been used for a very long time. Keep in mind though, that most of Europe was Catholic through the Middle Ages, and that the Catholic Church considered contraception of any kind (even withdrawal) a major sin. So while the concept may well have existed, it probably wasn’t discussed publicly or in common use.
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