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The history of the condom

A look condom use throughout history reveals a lot about changing attitudes to sexual health.

The popular use of condoms has risen and fallen throughout history, depending on the political and cultural attitudes of the time. Our understanding of disease and infection has played a big role, as has developments in materials and construction. And thankfully, the design has certainly come a long way over the years.

Condoms in ancient times

Trailblazer that he was, King Minos of Crete used a goat’s bladder sheath during intercourse to protect his wife from his semen, which is said to have been full of ‘serpents and scorpions’. That was around 3,000 B.C.

Meanwhile in Asia, early documentation shows limited use of glans condoms (condoms that only cover the head of the penis) prior to the 15th century in China and Japan. In China, they may have been made of oiled silk paper, or lamb intestine, but in Japan, they were made of tortoise shell or animal horn. Ouch.

Fast forward a few thousand years and things started to improve thanks to the Egyptians, who used linen sheaths dyed in different colours to distinguish between classes of people, as well as to protect themselves against bilharzia.

The Ancient Romans not only used linen or animal intestines, but occasionally the muscles of their slain combatants as condoms.

Popularity begins to grow

Condoms became better known throughout the 18th century. Despite much opposition (like requests to the UK Parliament to outlaw condom use because it encouraged sex with unsafe partners), the condom market grew steadily and rapidly. They were even sold at pubs, theatres, and barbershops in Europe.

Up until the 19th century though, condom use generally only occurred in the upper classes, mainly due to a lack of sexual education in the working classes.

“The discovery that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease, and the only way to protect against it was through barrier methods, led to the biggest spike in condom usage the world has ever seen.”

Along comes latex

Manufacturing with rubber kicked off during the Industrial Revolution in America, and in 1839, Charles Goodyear invented rubber vulcanization. The first condoms made of rubber were made in 1855 and by the 1860s, rubber condoms were being mass produced. Skin condoms were still more popular though, because they were cheaper and the early rubber ones tended to fall off.

In 1920 came latex, made using a process with rubber suspended in water. Latex condoms were cheaper and easier to produce and so replaced skin condoms in popularity.

During World War I, the United States and Britain were the only countries in Europe who did not provide condoms to their soldiers, and by the end of the war documented cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea in the American military skyrocketed.

Back then, syphilis killed more people every year than AIDS at its peak, and there was an awful lot of money spent on treating troops. Learning from its mistakes, the US military jumped on board in World War II and distributed condoms to soldiers.

Shortly afterwards, Britain made up for being slow on the uptake by creating the very first lubricated condom, produced by Durex in 1957. Condom use surged, with 42% of sexually active people between 1955-1965 relying on them for birth control.

Widespread use of penicillin and the contraceptive pill saw condom use plummet until the ’80s and the emergence of AIDS.

Understanding AIDS

The discovery that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease, and the only way to protect against it was through barrier methods, led to the biggest spike in condom usage the world has ever seen.

Yet by the noughties, a degree of complacency appears to have set in and we’ve seen an increase in other STIs. The one that worries a lot of health professionals is chlamydia. Its prevalence has doubled in the last 10 years, and it’s estimated that 25% of women will have contracted it by age 25.

So from silk paper to latex, what can we expect next? What if we were to tell you there was a condom that was invisible, imperceptible and felt just like real skin? Well, a group of scientists in Wollongong think they’re on the verge of a breakthrough that could mean just that. Time will tell.

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