Contraception is not an invention of modern times, nor is it a purely personal matter. Social institutions such as the church and the state have exerted their influence as effectively as doctors, population theorists, and the early pioneers of the feminist movement. All of these claim a special expertise in matters of ethics and morality, and so have shaped the discourses on and practices of birth control over the centuries.
In this engaging new book Robert Jütte offers a history of contraception from the Ancient world to the present day. He distinguishes two broad phases: first, a long phase, extending from the Ancient world up to the 18th century, in which birth control was part of a traditional form of sexual knowledge what Jütte calls, following the French social philosopher Michel Foucault, the ars erotica. In the second phase, which began in the 19th century, practices of birth control are increasingly shaped by the emerging models of scientific knowledge, while still retaining some vestiges of the erotic arts.
In addition to the contraceptives we know and use today, from coitus interruptus to the condom and the pill, Jütte considers other methods of birth control as diverse as the use of herbal potions and vaginal pessaries, the castration of young boys and the enforced sterilization of men and women. This comprehensive history of one of the oldest and most widespread of human practices offers a rich and nuanced account of how men and women across the centuries have struggled with the needs both for sexual gratification and for limitation of offspring, while also looking beyond the present to catch a glimpse of how contraception might evolve in the future.