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Illustration from Norman Himes and Abraham Stone, "Practical Birth Contrtol Methods," (1942).

Before Kinsey, there was Robert Latou Dickinson, a prominent gynecologist and sex educator who, among other things,  founded the Committee on Maternal Health in 1923. This committee aimed to gather clinical research on contraception, sterility, and abortions–a true, if not precarious novelty given the time period– and then report their findings.

In the course of my research here at the Sanger Papers, I recently happened upon the committee’s first report, written by Dickinson himself and printed by The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in November of 1924. And while some of its contents are laughably outdated (someone seriously recommended tampons as a viable form of contraception) there are moments that still ring with relevancy.

Take for instance, this discussion of the condom, or what was then known as the “sheath”:

“The sheath maintains its conspicuous place as the best known and simplest measure [of contraception]. It is believed to be trustworthy under four stipulations. These are good quality; testing; lubrication; and a medicated douche (such as one-fourth vinegar) available in case of slip or break. It is very commonly refused by the feebly virile and the selfish” (italics are mine, 9).

Amen, Dr. Dickinson.

This sharp insight also reminds me of the most recent national survey of sexual health and behavior, conducted by a group of Indiana University Researchers, and published in early October of last year. Although the study was funded by the makers of Trojan (which means we ought to take the next bit of info. with the tiniest morsel of salt), it found that 60%-80% of teens used condoms during their most recent sexual encounter. A sign perhaps, that the “sheath” is on its way to the kind of reputation public health officials would like it to have.

The study also noted however, that while the kids are alright with condoms, their parents and grandparents remain way behind the times. In fact, the study showed that two-thirds of those 50 and older take no preventive measures against STDs. This is not what the good doctor ordered.

Margaret Sanger was not a big fan of the condom, or any other contraceptive method that left control in the hands of men.  In her 1920 Woman and the New Race, she argued:

“In an ideal society, no doubt, birth control would become the concern of the man as well as the woman. The hard inescapable fact which we encounter to-day is that man has not only refused any such responsibility, but has individually and collectively sought to prevent woman from obtaining knowledge by which she could assume this responsibility for herself.  She is still in a state of a dependent to-day because her mate has refused to consider her as an individual apart from his needs.  She is still bound because she has in the past left the solution of the problem to him. Having left it to him she finds that instead of rights, she has only such privileges as she has gained by petitioning, coaxing and cozening. Having left it to him, she is exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.” (pp. 96-97)

(For further information on the IU study, see Shari Rudavsky’s “Major sex study reveals wide range of behaviors in USA” at http://www.usatoday.com/yourlife/sex-relationships/2010-10-04-sexsurvey04_ST_N.htm)