real life

What sex workers did for contraception, before condoms and birth control existed.

It is often said that sex work is the world’s oldest profession.

For most of history, there was no IUD or IUS, no contraceptive pill, no hysterectomy, no diaphragm and no condom, at least not in the form we know them today.

But women, since the beginning of time, have been ridiculously practical. Sex workers in particular went to enormous lengths to ensure that sex didn’t result in pregnancy.

Here are just a few of them.

The ‘thruppenny’

In Victorian England, sex with sex workers often took place outside, and in order to keep their clothes clean, the woman would stand upright with the man entering her from behind. This was called the ‘thruppenny’, an abbreviation of ‘three pennies’ which is how much sex cost at the time.

Because so many of their clients were drunk, women would hold the penis between their thighs – simulating sex without actually allowing the man to penetrate them.

Mia Freedman talks about having a Mirena insterted on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

Sexual acts that don’t involve the penis entering the vagina

Whether it’s graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, or pottery from the Moche civilisation of Peru, history tells us that sex workers often engaged in sex that didn’t involve vaginal penetration. Many archaeologists believe that the depiction of oral sex, and even anal sex were instructional, teaching people at the time how to enjoy sex without falling pregnant. The Kama Sutra, composed somewhere between 400 BCE and 200 CE, outlines a variety of different sexual acts, some of which don’t include penetration. Since the beginning of time it would seem, men and women have explored their sexuality far beyond intercourse.

The withdrawal method

Ancient texts, including the Book of Genesis, refer to ‘coitus interruptus’, otherwise known as the withdrawal method. It is understood to be the first form of contraception ever practised, and was widely documented in Ancient Rome.

The makeshift diaphragm

Placing half a lemon inside the vagina was a method of contraception dating back to the Old Testament era. It acted like a cervical cup, and lemon juice was understood to have spermicidal qualities. Casanova, known as the “world’s greatest lover”, wrote in the 1700s of his partners who used lemon to keep sperm from entering their cervix.

In Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, women placed honey, acacia leaves and lint in the vagina in an attempt to block sperm.

Image supplied.

In about 1850 BC, women in Egypt created a pessary, which was a concoction of crocodile dung, honey and sodium carbonate. After mixing and allowing it to dry, women would insert the clay-like matter into their vagina in order to block sperm. It was one of the first proto-diaphragms.

Other cultures, particularly those close to the coast, used actual sponges found in the ocean. They served as almost a plug, preventing anything from entering the cervix. In Africa, women used chopped grass or cloth, in Japan, sex workers used balls of bamboo tissue paper, and Islamic and Greek women used wool.

Most interestingly, in both Ancient Rome, and in the United States in the 19th Century, it was said that sex workers placed pennies inside their vagina. As bizarre as it sounds, it's interesting that the contemporary Paragard IUD is copper, because it creates an abortifacient environment. It seems they really weren't that far off.

The makeshift condom

The condom isn't nearly as modern as we might assume.

Cave paintings in France from 15 000 years ago depict what historians believe to be a man wearing a condom during intercourse. King Minos of Greece supposedly used goat bladders as condoms. The oldest condom ever discovered by historians was in Dudley Castle in England dating back to 1840, and was not unlike a sausage casing.

Ancient Egyptians used linen sheaths during intercourse, and in Europe pieces of cloth covered the glans of the penis, and was fastened with a ribbon.

Japanese men in the 19th Century used hard leather or tortoiseshell, and Chinese men made theirs out of lamb intestines.

15th Century condom. Image via Lizzie Plaugic.

Herbal concoctions

Most of the time 'herbal concoctions' are a euphemism for 'straight up poison'.

Women in various cultures, including China, drank mercury believing it had a sterilising effect. Pennyroyal tea was used by Ancient Greek women given it was toxic, and in India women who were avoiding pregnancy were advised to eat a papaya a day. According to modern research, an enzyme contained in the fruit, papain, interacts with progesterone and prevents pregnancy.

There were also a number of concoctions that were thought the bring upon miscarriage, like the Silphium plant or mushrooms related to LSD.


Regardless of legality, abortion has always been practised. Greek physicians believed that by shaking or beating woman, an abortion would be procured.

In the ancient world, abortion methods were non-surgical. They involved climbing, jumping, diving, fasting, sitting over a pot of stewed onions, massage and strenuous labour. In the Early Modern Period, women would tighten their girdle in an attempt to miscarry.


Archaeologists all over the world have found sewers beneath ancient brothels filled with infant bones. Women would birth their baby, and knowing they were unable to care for it, end their lives.

From bizarre to tragic, throughout history women have tried just about everything to avoid pregnancy.

If nothing else, these measures remind us how lucky we are in 2017 to have multiple options, even though we inarguably still have a way to go.

You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here. 

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