Something for the weekend?

February 14, 2008

Diverting as this large pack of prophylactic-related data and anecdotes may be, the lack of references is a barrier to Chris McManus's full enjoyment.

Condomology has not yet entered the academic mainstream. Not that there is a shortage of books on the topic: Amazon UK lists 130 titles, with The Condom Bible the bestseller, for which Amazon helpfully adds that "Customers Who Bought Items Like This" also purchased five different Durex products (and, before you ask, condom products, including a "Condom Fancy Dress Costume", are in Amazon's Kitchen and Home section). Nor are scholarship and industry absent, largely thanks to Philip M. Parker, whose books include The 2007 Import and Export Market for Rubber Sheath Contraceptives (Condoms) in Russia, and its companion volumes on China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Thailand, South Korea, Spain, the UK and the US. And ultra-specialists will appreciate Parker's The 2007-2012 Outlook for Lambskin Condoms in Japan. Lest one is misled here, note that "lambskin condoms", despite the cuddly imagery, are made from sheep intestines.

Aine Collier's historical overview of the device first properly described by the 16th-century physician Gabriele Falloppio, and which shares only a name with the French town of Condom, contains much of potential interest. Single-topic books can be very good - think only of Henry Petroski's wonderful The Pencil - but as well as having a serious interest in ideas, objects and cultural history, they need to be well written. An excess of exclamation marks apart, this book reads nicely in small doses, but becomes tedious and repetitive en masse.

An absence of references and picture credits makes it far from scholarly, and while many of its claims may be true, one simply has no way of knowing. Provenance is everything in history, but here even the author remains mysterious. The jacket says that "Aine Collier, EdD, is assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland", but the name is a pseudonym, as, rather sadly, the author states that "for professional reasons ... I feel it prudent to protect my identity".

The problems of textual provenance begin at the first sentence, which describes a 12,000-year-old painting in the Grotte des Combarelles in the Dordogne showing "a man and a woman having sex - with his penis covered". Perhaps indeed "archaeologists and historians have debated (whether the couple) were actually practising safe sex", but the debate has yet to emerge anywhere that I can find on the internet. The Rough Guide doesn't usually miss a trick, but neither it nor any other travel guide mentions this remarkable painting, and there is no photo in the present book.

On some occasions, Collier is clearly wrong, as when she asserts that "by the end of the 18th century ... Captain Cook had made his historic journey to the South Pole". Likewise, the picture supposedly showing a mid-18th-century London street has what look suspiciously like gas lamps. Other claims are also contentious, as with "by the mid-1980s, more than 80 per cent of the world's sexually active women under 50 years of age had taken birth control pills". The world?

The liminal status of condoms, despite their vital public health role, raises fascinating historical, psychological and sociological questions that deserve proper scholarly analysis. Although this book contains much intriguing primary material, albeit unsourced and unsourceable, the ultimate effect, with its sometimes infuriatingly jaunty tone, is unsatisfying - amusing, though, as something for the weekend.

The Humble Little Condom

A History
By Aine Collier
Prometheus Books
371pp
£8.99
ISBN 9781591025566
Published 30 September 2007

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