Scarlet Letters, The Journal of Femmerotica, Solo Sex
February 8th, 2000
About that Condom | Debra Hyde
Recently, I came across the Rochester, New York news story of a condom discovered within a time capsule from 1873. The condom, found in a sealed envelope and placed within a book, surprised city officials and its presence was quickly labeled the work of a prankster.

But something about the date, 1873, sounded familiar to me and I wondered if the condom planting was really the prank that everyone assumed it to be. As soon as my kids were out the door to school, a quick online search confirmed my suspicions: 1873 was the year which saw the passage of the Comstock Law, a piece of legislation that effectively made contraception and family planning illegal in America.

The condom, in my estimation, wasn’t the work of a prankster but the act of a protester, and I’m surprised that the media didn’t spot the correlation.

Although condoms have existed in some form or other since the days of the pharaohs, the rubber condom came along in the 1840s and its use skyrocketed after the Civil War. Vulcanized rubber had transformed American life, and, with reusable rubber condoms easily available, American moralists feared that sex might be reduced from its Biblically proscribed status to that of a mere recreation. (A post-war boom in prostitution at the same time didn’t help matters any.)

And so the Comstock Law followed.

Behind the law stood Anthony Comstock, a New York City moral crusader better known for book busts and burnings. In tandem with the Comstock Law’s passage, he organized the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and, as a U.S. deputy, became something of a 19th-century J. Edgar Hoover, raiding warehouses, printing presses, and post offices with impunity. In the ensuing years, Comstock himself would see some 3500 people prosecuted.

Perhaps our protester could see what loomed on the horizon and slipped the condom into the time capsule as some New York upstate/downstate gesture of disdain. (And no wonder the condom wasn’t inventoried in the time capsule ­ it was an illegal item!)

In fact, maybe the effects of Comstock’s efforts had already taken hold when our Anonymous Protester (aka A.P. herewith) made the quick slip. Maybe A.P. resorted to a sheep intestine condom because rubber condoms were nowhere to be found. Condom seizures via warehouse raids became quite common in the 1870s and I saw one figure that claimed some 65,000 condoms had been seized. (Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the number was arrived at during initial seizures over a period of years.) At any rate, it’s conceivable that A.P. wondered if we’d even recognize a condom in the year 2000, given the state of affairs in 1873.

And how would A.P. view the state of reproductive rights in the year 2000? Certainly, the condom’s continued existence would be cause to celebrate. And I bet A.P would find the vast array of condoms (and stores dedicated to selling condoms and only condoms) downright amazing. But how would A.P. view the decades of struggle it took to make condoms, and other forms of birth control, legally and easily available?

Would A.P. be discouraged to learn that Comstock’s stranglehold on American society proved so tight that twenty-four states enacted local statutes based on the federal law? That only a few people openly challenged these laws until after his death in 1915? That even though women like Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett fought Comstock in the courts, their battle would intensify only after his death?

Even then, decades would pass until the Supreme Court would strike down the last vestiges of the Comstockery. How would A.P. feel to learn that condoms would remain illegal in some states until 1965 when the Supreme Court finally struck down state bans on the prescription, sale and use of contraceptives? And that the very last birth control ban -- a Massachusetts law which forbid unmarried individuals the right to birth control -- would be overturned in 1972, almost a hundred years after A.P. planted the condom in the time capsule.

I could, however, provide some levity at this point. I could tell A.P. how shocked my parents were to find a birth control ban in effect when they moved from wild Nevada to staid Connecticut. And how, for years, my parents staged Friday night “family trips” to Massachusetts where we kids spent our allowances while my dad disappeared to buy condoms.

Still, I don’t think A.P. would be happy to know that we’re still fighting over condoms and “morality” even now. It seems as if we’ve forgotten the downside of moralism enough to allow the likes of Rudy Guiliani to tiptoe in Anthony Comstock’s faded footsteps. That we now have a sexually-transmitted disease that kills and even though condoms can halt its progress, today’s moralists preach “failure, failure, failure!” loudly enough to overshadow rational thinking and scientific fact. That the culture war of a century ago caught its second wind a full century later when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe v. Wade.

On the up side, the genie can’t easily go back into the bottle, no matter how contentious American views on sexual freedom might be. Birth control is here to stay, thanks to numerous Supreme Court rulings, thanks to mass production and mass marketing, and thanks to mass use. And if that doesn’t cheer A.P. up, I’ll reveal my own little family secret: The use of condoms is a matter of pride in my family. In two generations, we’ve logged almost forty years of successful condom use.

Family history aside, let me thank A.P. for the condom gesture of 1873. You see, that gesture renewed my appreciation for the history of reproductive rights in America. It made me review our past and realize that we’ve grown complacent and uninformed about Comstockery and the fight for family planning freedoms. And that we don’t realize how little has changed in the fight between “moralism” and personal freedom.

Just as important, I’ve gained an understanding of the power of protest as well -- so much so that if moralists should ever seriously threaten the individual’s access to birth control, I know just what I’ll do: I’ll start a letter-writing campaign. And I’ll stuff a condom into every envelope.

Copyright 2000, Debra Hyde. All rights reserved.
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