Jimmie hat, love glove, rubber — the humble, yet mighty, condom.
Whatever you want to call it, this form of contraception has both its staunch supporters and major haters. Some people even swear that sex without a condom isn’t even sex worth having. Whichever side you fall on, we can all agree that condoms are an important part of the healthy sex equation.
So we all think we know condoms. But did you know that this highly effective method of protection against STDs/STIs and pregnancy has a history that spans thousands of years?
The earliest depiction of a condom was a French cave painting from sometime around 10000-13000 BC illustrating a man using one during intercourse. Around 1000 BC, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic showcased the second oldest record of condoms, which historians believe were made of fine linens at the time.
Fast forward to the 1400s, when condoms got even more interesting. And, honestly? Kinda gross. During the 15th century, “glans condoms” were introduced in parts of upper class Asia. China favored softer materials — oiled silk paper, lamb intestines — while Japan opted for harder (perhaps thought to be more durable?) objects such as animal horns or tortoise shell. Yeah. Ouch.
Now, I can’t speak for 15th century vagina-havers, but glans condoms sound like a bad trip. In addition to being painful, many were prone to slipping off and becoming lodged inside the receiving person. Luckily, in the mid-1500s Italian physician Gabrielle Fallopio hypothesized that linen soaked in chemicals could help protect users against syphilis and invented a linen condom that tied up neatly with a string.
Miraculously, when he tested these condoms on more than 1,000 (questionably) willing participants, none of them contracted syphilis. Due to the overwhelmingly positive results of this experiment, linen condoms gained the public’s confidence and stayed relatively popular for years to come.
A couple of hundred years later, archaeologists examining the foundation of Dudley Castle found several animal-membrane condoms dating back to the mid 1600s. They’re the first physical evidence of animal-skin condoms in Europe.
During the 1770’s, we meet Giacomo Casanova, best known as the “Great Lover.” Casanova both popularized and destigmatized condom use. Throughout his adult life, he kept detailed memoirs of his sex-capades and oftentimes referenced his use of condoms to protect both himself and his many lovers from venereal disease — specifically, syphilis.
There is also this straight-up hilarious picture from the Library of Congress showing how Casanova would ensure his condoms were still intact by blowing them up before his waiting ladies. You gotta give the guy credit for thoroughness and extra points for involving his partners in the process!
In 1855, Charles Goodyear invented the natural rubber condom, which was about the thickness of a bicycle’s inner tube (ow!) but significantly less likely to break than earlier condoms (yay!). At the time, men were told that rubber condoms were reusable and could be used until the rubber began to crumble. (But, in case you didn’t know, we don’t currently advise reusing condoms, because their success rate greatly diminishes with each use.)
In 1919, the single-use latex condom arrived — and changed the game forever.
Latex was thinner, more durable, and infinitely more pleasurable to use than any previous type of condom. These condoms were provided to troops stationed all over the world during World War II because troop leaders were worried that “our boys” would bring “exotic” infections home to their wives. Ironically, people living in the US didn’t truly reap the benefits of this invention for several years thanks to the Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” laws of 1873 that made it really, really hard to access condoms.
In the 1950’s, the latex condom got an overhaul, becoming thinner, tighter, and lubricated. Penises everywhere overflowed with joy! The now-standard reservoir tip for semen collection was also introduced at this time. But although condoms were becoming more user-friendly, the public’s verdict was still out. Many people took moral issue with condoms, religious leaders denounced their use as a form of birth control, and even the “free lovers” of the 60’s were moving away from using condoms.
The AIDS “epidemic” hit the United States hard in the early 80’s, affecting gay men in metropolitan areas and leading to an stigma-filled assumption that HIV/AIDS was a “gay, immoral disease”. Even as new cases were discovered among heterosexual women, the public considered the issue siloed to the gay community.
However, as public awareness and — consequently — public panic around the virus grew, interest in condoms surged. Condoms became re-marketed as a way to protect one’s self from the spread of HIV/AIDS. At this time, they also became available in supermarkets, increasing worldwide usage.
Somewhere in the 90s, the conversation about condoms turned from fear to pleasure, and manufacturers began to market condoms as a sex positive part of sex. They focused on introducing flavors, textures, and unique experiences (i.e. glow in the dark condoms!) to encourage use. The female condom — better known now as the internal condom — hit drugstores in 1994 and people quickly figured out that they they were extremely suitable for anal sex.
Today, there are so many options available for a pleasurable condom-enhanced sexual experience. Condom technology has ensured that, when used correctly, they’re still the most effective form of both birth control and STD/STI prevention. And, these days, there are some advancements that I even find hard to believe, like the smart condom.
So the next time your partner argues that a condom is uncomfortable or gets in the way you can say “at least it’s not a tortoise shell, Mark.” Then order yourself some free condoms so you don’t have to worry that you’ll “forget to bring one.”
Image Credits: Sexual + Being