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Feature Tue Nov 02 2010

Feature Q & A with Paula Treichler

This story was submitted by Rachel Rabbit White.

Paula Treichler just got back from her high-school reunion. "If I would have been braver, I would have taken surveys," she says. Treichler is a researcher and professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And she apparently finds the condom-use of her graduating class of 1960 important. While most of us probably haven't considered the history and meaning of rubbers, Treichler has made her life's work from studying the history and future of condoms.

On Saturday, Nov. 6, you can hear her talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival, where according to the website, listeners are invited to "use the condom as a prism to reconsider the history of sexuality and its representations, including cartoons, jokes, lore, legends, and references to pop culture."

Here, Treichler gives us a history of the condom in the United States — from sexual prohibition to the gendering of birth control to the condom backlash when AIDS first broke. And of course, predictions on the future of "gentleman's rubber products."

So, is there a world history of condoms being prohibited?

The class, race and health of who has babies has always been of interest to a state. Various incentives are built in by government and society to influence that. After World War II, populations of young men were wiped out. European countries did institute fairly strong prohibitions against birth control because they wanted their populations to regenerate.

But condoms were also prohibited in the U.S., right?

What makes the condom different from other methods of contraception is that it's both birth control and disease prevention. You can't separate one from the other, and this has made it easy to demonize. Starting in the late 19th century in the United States, the Comstock act prohibited condoms [ed: until the '60s and '70s in some states].

So did condoms just disappear for 50-plus years?

There was a guy in Chicago who sold condoms. When he would get busted, he'd go underground, change his name and brochures and pop up somewhere else in Chicago. The American Medical Association was also after these people, because to them condoms were a form of practicing medicine without a license. They were trying to make the medical profession very respectable and kick out all of the quacks and fake cures — and a lot of those were sexual.

What finally changed?

Starting at the end of the 19th century there was a huge syphilis outbreak and it wasn't talked about. There was still this Victorian idea of silence is good and women especially shouldn't know these things. As the epidemic spread and no one would talk about it, doctors began to change their minds about birth control and disease prevention. 

During World War I a lot of troops enlisted had syphilis and couldn't give their manpower. So the military decided they weren't interested in birth control but were interested in disease prevention. Although it was never really condoned, millions of condoms were distributed among troops during World War I. Plus our troops got to mingle with British and French troops and saw that the attitudes towards sex were different. Supposedly this is how American guys learned how to do oral sex on women.

Who else besides soldiers were using condoms?

radiumcondom.jpgSome people read hieroglyphs and say they used them in ancient Egypt. Casanova is the most famous example, there is this print of him sitting around with women in a parlor, blowing up condoms. But condoms were around certainly for the last two or three hundred years. A lot of them were made from animal skin or intestines, or from linen or silk. They were reusable, you'd wash them. In the U.S. certainly working class people preferred them because they were cheaper, more readily available and you didn't have to go see a doctor to get them, like other forms of birth control. Which a lot of women, often immigrant women, were uncomfortable with.

When we think of birth control, it's often the 1960s and the pill that comes to mind. But what did the '60s change for condoms?

The '60s were a whole generational change in terms of sexual practices and freedoms. Then around 1970 all of those Comstock prohibitions on the books were taken off. So by that point condoms could be sold in supermarkets, they could be advertised in magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal, not to mention Playboy and Penthouse.

What were early condom ads like?

I found that the exact same ad, same picture, same headline might be in Playboy and Ms., but the copy would be completely different. In the women's magazine, it was about feeling safe and secure, it was her sensitive feelings. But in the men's ad it was his feeling of sensitivity — as in "you won't lose any sensitivity."

One of the things I've found though research is that traditionally birth control is a woman's issue.

Yes and disease prevention is thought of as a male issue. Some of this is left over from the military — if men sleep with prostitutes, they've got to protect themselves so they don't bring the filth of the prostitute into the castle with their wonderful wife.

There was this bio-physiologist, maybe 25 years ago, who decided to change the nature of his research do something to help women. This was at his daughter's death bed, something very dramatic like that. He began to develop a product that did birth control and disease prevention. But he couldn't get funding for it. The birth control people said, "We don't know anything about disease prevention," and the disease prevention people said, "Well, we don't have any interest in birth control." These two empires are still quite separate, we see that as AIDS and condoms move around the world.

What did AIDS change as far as discourse on condoms?

It should have been Condoms 101 when AIDS hit. But instead, the religious right started a crusade against condoms. In '87 there was a hearing about government funding research and condoms. The Catholics turned up. The far right argued it would promote homosexuality, all of the same anti arguments used throughout history were dredged up. The congresspeople from Illinois went the opposite direction, and took cue from the Gay Community Task Force. For a year in the '80s if you were getting married in Illinois you had to take an HIV test. But then they had funding taken away, so Illinois had to scale back what they were doing.

So where are we now? What is the future of condoms?

It's been very hard to figure out actual condom usage. There was a city that hired people in the summer to go through the sewage system and count the condoms. Then they had a huge condom promotion campaign and went back to count them again to see if people had actually changed their behavior and used more, and they had!

Since the '80s, scientists have been trying to develop a foam that injects in the vagina to kill both sperm and sexually transmitted pathogens. It would be completely under women's control and men wouldn't even have to know about it. I've always thought that a spray on product would be great because you could do it in a backseat of a car then peel it off and mush it in a ball. Last year a German guy did invent a spray-on condom but couldn't get the drying time down. Condoms are a great product — cheap, simple but I think it's back to the drawing board for them.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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