It’s All About Control

One important topic to research when one is writing about prostitutes is invariably Birth Control. Looking at contraceptives used in the 1800s is quite interesting because while they didn’t have IUDs or pills back then they actually had some solid birth control methods.

The oldest and most agreed-upon method of prevention was coitus interruptus, or rather pulling out. While I’m sure several men who patronized brothels did so, I’d say the majority did not. It was part of a prostitute’s job description to make sure that she didn’t get pregnant.

A common contraceptive that would’ve been used, dating back to Ancient Egypt, was a pessary. Pessaries were inserted into the vagina to kill sperm or block their passage into the cervix. They melted at body temperature and formed an impenetrable barrier, so they were easy to use and highly effective. There are many recipes for pessaries, which often used dung as a base (crocodile dung was used by Egyptians), along with honey and sodium carbonate that created that gummy texture. Sounds disgusting but the honey actually worked as an anti-bacterial.

Sponges would’ve been another popular option for regency prostitutes. They used an almond-sized piece of sponge, wrapped it in silk, soaked it in vinegar or lemon juice and stuck it in there. This acted as both a spermicide and a way to absorb the semen.

Sponges

Douching was another, although not very effective, method of contraception for that time. Women attempted to flush out sperm from their vagina often using a syringe filled with cold water. Some women would also squat while doing this, and others jumped backwards.

Condoms: Yes, they existed in the 1800s, and earlier than that in fact,  but their popularity boomed in the 19th century. They were made out of sheep’s gut with a ribbon at the bottom to secure it. The famous Casanova claimed to frequently use lambskin condoms. These skin condoms were expensive and generally used by members of the upper and middle class. So men who frequented lower-class brothels would not have used condoms because a- they couldn’t afford them, and b- they weren’t educated about the dangers of STDs. A single condom would’ve cost a typical prostitute several months’ pay. So if condoms did find their way into brothels they would’ve been washed and re-used more than once.

The rhythm methods or counting as some women do nowadays was not a common practice during the Regency period. It would have been guesstimating more than anything as fertility cycles weren’t fully understood until the early 20th century.

Some herbs and other plants were used as spermicides too in an attempt to prevent pregnancies.

Bottom line is prostitutes did have some control over getting pregnant during the regency period. But most methods needed resources and some level of education. Even with access to those contraceptives, many still got pregnant and bore bastards. Thankfully, science has come a long way from crocodile dung!

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