Devices & Desires / Andrea Tone

I wish I remembered where I saw this book recommended, because I really would like to thank the person who got me to put it on my to be read list. Devices & Desires is a history of contraception in America, covering the late 1800s until the early 1970s. The coverage focuses on the makers, proponents, and users of birth control, rather than the legal and political status. I haven’t done the independent research to know whether Tone’s tome is accurate (voluminous end notes notwithstanding). Because Tone wrote about both the warts and the virtues of the characters involved, I tend to credit her with completeness. And of course, it’s an interesting subject matter. Who doesn’t want to know more about the history of making sex more risk-free?

Cover of Devices And Desires

I have to warn potential readers of something though. Don’t read this book if you are squeamish. It’s not just that some of the early methods of contraception (camel dung!) are distasteful. There was quite a bit of quackery involved in selling and marketing birth control. Birth control was illegal for so long, and other restrictions remained in place long after the ban was lifted. We can’t regulate the content of items that aren’t within the realm of legal products. And so, we got Lysol as the leading form of contraception for decades. Lysol doesn’t even work as contraception but its makers sold it that way, and millions of American women inserted a caustic cleaning product into their vaginas in order to kill off sperm after sex. Then again if you are reading it here, you might as well read the book.

The biggest takeaway from the book is the trajectory of birth control from banned product to something controlled by medical professionals. Margaret Sanger embraced medical control of birth control for several reasons. It carved out an exception to the existing bans on contraception in place with the Comstock laws. Medical prescription also reduced the dangers from unregulated birth control. However, medicalized contraceptives means that those who need them aren’t in sole control of whether and when to use them. There’s got to be a doctor or nurse involved. Devices & Desires covers the history of how Sanger embraced the medical profession from initial radical revulsion.

The second main focus in the book is on those who made the devices. Condoms and diaphragms in the 19th century required very little to make. Some rubber and some chemicals and a place to put it together. Douches, although not particularly effect, could also be made cheaply. Combined with legal bans that kept larger legitimate companies from selling them, small proprietors could thrive. Many of the small proprietors were poor, immigrant, and frequently women. As birth control became more accepted, the smaller companies became bigger, or disappeared. Particularly interesting to read about was the story of the creation of the Pill, created by male scientists but funded and encouraged by philanthropic motivated women.

The last main thrust to draw from the book is the effect on people who have sex. Tone’s book covers the benefits to women primarily, but touches on men in a few cases as well. One of the big moves from illegality came as a result of World War I, where millions of men contracted venereal diseases. Pregnancy wasn’t considered by society to be morally acceptable to prevent, but disease was. It’s one of the many instances of disparate treatment of women that Devices & Desires highlights.

I do wish Devices & Desires covered the science more in depth. I don’t mean that this should have been a book about how contraception works. I mean the social science. What gets people to use contraception? Why did the idea of contraception as sin go by the wayside? From a history perspective, we can see the events that happened but not always the reasons why. After World War I where the military started providing condoms to soldiers, what was the mechanism by which they were accepted? I wish there was more sociology here than there was.

I noted this on Twitter: I think this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in several years. Never dry, it was balanced, informative, and interesting.

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