Contraception: A History

September 11, 2008

Contraception: A History sets out a broad overview of this complex and complicated subject. As others have done before, Robert Jutte (in an English translation by Vicky Russell) dispels the myth that birth control is a recent idea and sets out to place the use of birth-control methods in their different historical and geographic contexts. In the introduction, he sets out his theoretical position as Foucauldian in that he seeks to explore discourses to reveal sites of power/knowledge, situating these within understandings of the nature of sexual relationships rather than trace the development and usage of particular methods. The structure follows that of Foucault's History of Sexuality, dividing time into the phases of Arts Erotica and Scientia Sexualis.

Jutte begins with the ancient world, exploring medical and religious texts for understandings of not just what birth control methods were used, but also what (if anything) was "permitted", who gave permission and on what basis. These themes will continue to dominate throughout the book. Although he does not reveal many new historical sources, he does use previous texts to paint an interesting and engaging picture of the ways in which acceptance and prohibitions were rooted in the socio-economic contexts - for example, the extent to which early Christianity used its stance on marriage and sexuality to differentiate itself from other religious movements.

In the second chapter, he moves to the Middle Ages and begins with a discussion of early demography. Yet the relationship of this emerging interest in population to the core subject of contraception is not really developed. More interesting is his discussion of Secreta mulierum, a medieval text written by and for men that attempted to reveal knowledge of women's reproductive bodies. While it is known that women had an oral culture of knowledge transmission that is likely to have included methods of birth control, as Jutte makes clear, the detail of this is mostly lost. Nevertheless, he shows from a variety of sources that contraception was being practised despite religious sanctions. This chapter concludes with a section discussing, among other issues, the castration of choristers and the sexual conduct of Casanova. This, perhaps, is the best indication of the wider-ranging narrative that Jutte is putting forward.

The final two chapters of the book detail the period from the 19th century to the present and offer what is probably a more familiar account of the modern period. This phase begins with the emergence of neo-Malthusian ideas and the interplay of liberal thought, eugenic ideologies and the birth-control movements. Jutte's detailed accounts of regional differences in the dissemination and development of these ideas make this text worth reading. He finishes with a brief description of the history of a potential male pill, reminding readers that despite the late-20th-century emphasis of contraception as "women's business", for most of history the dominance of coitus interruptus shows the extent to which men were responsible for birth control.

Overall, Contraception: A History should prove useful to scholars and students alike. The overview it presents is a useful starting point from which the subject can be explored. It does, however, gloss over the relationship between contraception and abortion. Indeed, although Jutte acknowledges in his introduction that the term "contraception" is a modern definition and that in many early writings authors did not necessarily distinguish between the two, this issue is not well developed in the text.

In addition, although the introduction sets out his theoretical framework, this was implicit through much of the book, and a concluding chapter pulling theory and history together more explicitly would have been a welcome addition.

Contraception: A History

By Robert Jutte Polity Press 288pp, £55.00 and £18.99 ISBN 97807456304 and 311 Published 11 April 2008

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