We live in a country where parents don’t talk to their kids about sex. Kids don’t tell their parents when they start having sex. And families pretend that the creation of babies doesn’t require sex at all.
In such a sexually repressed country, imagine talking to grandparents about the birth control they used. The same set of grandparents who have spoiled you silly, the ones who are probably old-fashioned, and the ones who also pretend to have never heard about S-E-X.
Reactions To Grandparents Using Birth Control
It was certainly an amusing topic to open up in front of my friends when I asked them to put forth to their grandparents the following question: “What birth control or family planning measures did your grandparents use to manage their family?”
It led to reactions varying from “Woah, we never thought about that!” to *insert giggle sounds* to “Have you seen the number of aunts and uncles I have? There was no birth control.” I realized quickly that if we don’t think about our grandparents indulging in sexual bliss, we certainly never think about them trying to control their family size through contraceptives and other birth control measures.
Related Reading: How I Discovered Sex, Pregnancy And Love In Pre-Internet Days
Why Don’t We Hear More About Birth Control In ‘Those’ Times?
From the common people to our leaders, everyone held different views on birth control and family planning. According to this wiki page, Mahatma Gandhi was the main opponent of birth control. He believed self-control is the best contraceptive. Periyar, on the other hand, advocated for family planning for women and rightfully saw birth control as a means for women to control their own lives.
Thankfully, we’ve moved past the age where women were told to drink lead or mercury, or shove anything from lemon to elephant dung up there. But ignorance still flourishes, and so do the many reasons we don’t hear our grandparents talk about birth control. I bet you can guess them all.
Everything in our country that’s remotely related to sex and agency of the body is wrapped up in stigma. For many old people who belong to a much more conservative world, birthing babies was considered a duty and not something to ‘control’. Birth control methods for women, if still frowned upon today in countless families, were a strict no-no and an act of sacrilege back then.
2. Well, they were shy
They were as shy about their sex lives as many of us were when the chapter on reproduction came up in our biology class. A grandmother explains the history of shyness in her family, “My own mother never explained to me anything regarding my body – either when I had my period or before my wedding night. She told me later she was shy and didn’t want to talk about my body parts with me or what the best contraceptives for me were. I inherited that shyness too, but I made sure I unlearn it when I had my daughters.”
3. Lack of awareness
Even if they wanted to talk about it and didn’t feel shy, they couldn’t because of an utter lack of awareness around a person’s reproductive rights. Most people knew nothing about their reproductive organs, their internal processes, their reproductive needs, and methods of birth control.
According to a grandparent who spoke to me lovingly, “I see how openly kids speak about their sexual and reproductive rights today. They even talk about sex with their partners, their reproductive choices with their parents and friends, and even on social media. The world has changed, as it should have.”
4. Blessings from above
Most conservative homes still believe that children are blessings from God. Denying such blessings is a sin. If there were financial worries, then they were eased away through a simple (albeit illogical) thought: a child doesn’t just come with a mouth to be fed, a child also comes with two hands that will earn when they grow up. Birth control, thus, was considered unnecessary, because the child will bring money back into the household when they become an adult (or much before that).
One grandmother told me on the call, “Many people considered child-bearing people to be machines to birth babies – any thought spent toward our own health and freedom was selfish. We could never think of broaching the subject of not wanting more babies.”
Related Reading: My Husband Wants A Second Baby But I Don’t
Let’s Talk To The Grandparents Who Used Contraceptive Measures
Our grandparents, the ones who were able to, fought back against the taboo, the widespread ignorance, and their patriarchal family members. They wanted to use birth control methods for women to ensure all their monetary resources are not spent on bringing up babies, that they get some time to live their own lives, and in many cases, it was to safeguard the health of the women too.
The grandparents who wanted to use birth control were met with rage, stigma, disgust, shock, fights, or alienation. There was no forum to discuss sexual health openly and without judgment, no space to discuss different types of family planning.
“My mother-in-law wanted a son. I gave birth to four beautiful daughters, but that wasn’t enough for her. She kept insisting that we birth someone who takes the family name forward. I was tired of being shamed for something that was not in my hands. Even then, even with my lack of awareness, my husband and I knew her behavior was unfair so we secretly opted for birth control. She never got to know,” shares a grandma on a call with me.
15 Types Of Contraceptive Methods Used By Our Grandparents
By 1930, various barrier contraceptives had entered the market though they were not popular at all. Our grandparents used all sorts of strange (owing to myths, ignorance, and the hush-hush nature of the topic) and valid birth control measures. We’ll go through some of them one by one, as informed to me through research and through interesting conversations with a few grandparents and their grandkids.
Please remember that many types of family planning measures our grandparents used “didn’t” help plan most of their families. Many of these are not fully, or even a little, effective. If you are looking for birth control measures, do consult a gynecologist.
1. Pull-out method – Coitus interruptus
The one that doesn’t work but is still practiced widely. There are enough puns and memes on this failed ‘contraceptive method’. You may be the most confident person in the world, but if you have a penis, please remember it has a mind of its own. Your pre-ejaculation fluid can have sperm, plus you’re not a Time Lord, so you can’t time your penis withdrawal perfectly every time.
A friend tells me about her grandmother, “Back then, she thought this was the only way to not have babies or to protect yourself from STDs. My grandpa and she practiced this as their sole contraceptive method. They have 6 children.”
2. Separate the lovebirds
Three separate grandparents vouched for this. And of course, they did. It’s foolproof and hilarious. When it was decided that a couple shouldn’t have kids, one of them was sent away for a few months or a couple of years.
This, from the generation that talks about self-control and how kids are sex-obsessed and impatient nowadays. Ha! We can imagine the number of love-lorn letters exchanged by our grandparents during such times, making the Indian post office extremely busy and happy.
3. Abstinence and restraint – Gandhi would love this
“If you didn’t want kids, you just didn’t have sex. Simple,” a grandma tells me matter-of-factly. Sex for procreation ONLY – this would make a lot of people who misinterpret religious texts really happy. Did it work? Maybe for those who weren’t that interested in sex, but it sure didn’t work for those who couldn’t keep away from each other.
Also, on the darker side, many women didn’t exactly have a choice to stay abstinent even if they wanted to. They were clearly told their job is to reproduce babies, preferably boys. Abstinence was, and in many cases still is, a choice for men, and a luxury for women.
Related Reading: What Does Celibacy Mean And How To Live Without Sex?
4. Douching the vagina
This made my vagina curl up in terror. Homemade vaginal douches or sponges soaked in oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and papaya juice — substances that acted as mild spermicides — were either used to douche the vagina right after unprotected sex or kept inside the vagina for some time after sex to allegedly ‘kill the sperm’ or reduce its effect.
Please note that these do not work as female contraceptive methods. Douching could, in fact, backfire and force the sperm up into the uterus. If only I could go back in time and tell our grandparents.
5. Rhythm method – When calendars are your best friends
Does it matter that the rhythm method is not fool-proof? No! Women, who are no longer ignorant about their bodies, still try it and vouch for it. It basically entails a menstruator keeping track of their period days, and thus gauging the days that are safe to have sex on, and the days that can lead to ‘pregnant sex’.
“I learned it from my mother and she learned it from her mother – the rhythm method. I still use this birth control approved by my naani (maternal grandmother) in my marriage. But to my credit, my partner and I also use a condom,” shares Priya.
6. Papaya – The no-good king of birth control
At least 7 people told me about papaya being a great contraceptive or spermicide or used for abortion. So, I’m giving this fruit its own space here. The men were supposed to drink a concoction of raw papaya seeds regularly to lower their sperm count. The women had a LOT of ripe papaya after unprotected sex to make sure the implantation doesn’t take place.
A friend’s grandmother, more than happy to share her sexual history, tells me about her homegrown method of birth control, “There’s a ‘shevari kapus’ tree or a silk-cotton tree, the silky cotton of which they would dip in raw papaya juice and use it like a tampon after sex. This, they believed, would act as a spermicide.”
7. Men consumed natural herbs to lower sperm count
Apart from the papaya seed concoction, apparently, garlic, cloves, mint and neem helped in killing or lowering sperm count. In many kitchens of traditional India, you’ll still see women ensuring that parts of certain veggies or fruits are not served to the ‘men of the house’ because “it makes them impotent” – as told confidently by another grandma.
Since women were and still are the bearers of a man’s manhood in India, it’s only logical that they take up that mantle in the kitchen, and only feed them ‘manly’ vegetables. “For this very reason, my mother-in-law never allowed me to add coriander to my husband’s food. He loved coriander. Poor guy,” shares my own relative with me.
Related Reading: 15 Awesome Reasons To Be Childfree
8. Women consumed natural herbs and foods
During this research, I heard about palasa seeds mixed with ghee, drinking copious amounts of ginger tea, eating carrot seeds, anything with high vitamin C, eating a lot of things that naturally produce heat, fish with high mercury content, raw milk, mint, carom seeds, etc. – all of this as means of not-at-all-effective or partially effective female contraceptive methods.
These things were consumed in varying degrees with the intent to prevent implantation, or to kill the sperm that has entered the vagina right after sex. I’ve heard of many myths associated with vaginas but these popular methods of birth control take the cake.
9. ‘Down’ with the sperm!
Another not-so-great way of family planning for women – some women peed after having sex thinking it’ll wash away all that sperm. Some would take up bodily positions that help keep the sperm “down” and not travel “up” to the uterus. Facepalm emoji, please.
My mother tells me something she heard from other grandparents growing up: they would squat down after sex to PUSH the sperm down. Gravity, am I right? These methods are almost as useful as me turning my head to the left and hoping that my entire body will follow suit.
10. Don’t stop breastfeeding
Back then, many people believed that if you’re breastfeeding, you can’t reproduce, especially if you haven’t had your period after giving birth. This method was used by grandmothers who wished to have a gap between their one child and the next. They would simply keep breastfeeding until they were ready to have another child.
Though it sounds like a natural way for the body to produce its own birth control, it’s definitely not foolproof at all. This induced gap, if successful, did help women get stronger and healthier after having a baby though, and mentally prepared them for another child, so they don’t have to tackle the side-effects of a pregnancy.
11. IUD – Intrauterine Device
In the 1960s, tens of thousands of women were coerced into getting IUDs, reminding us of India’s coercive history with birth control. An IUD is a small T-shaped device inserted into the uterus by a trained doctor. Its two types are the copper IUD and the hormonal IUD, and they are both effective methods of contraception and can stay in place for 5 to 10 years, depending on the type.
“I got a copper-T after hearing about its success from my friends after my 3 babies and 5 years of marriage,” A grandma tells me in confidence. When asked about the husband’s reactions, she says, “It was my job to protect my body from further babies, he didn’t object to anything I tried but he didn’t participate either. If I hadn’t had an IUD inserted, I’m sure he would have given me more babies to bring up.”
Related Reading: The Best Sex Is Enjoyed Without Guilt Or Shame
12. Vasectomy – Male sterilization
Another grandmother shares her story, “We were under a lot of pressure to birth more babies. I had reached the limits of my body, and my husband had reached the limits of his finances. He decided to go and have a vasectomy. Needless to say, no one knew about it. This is the first time I’m even speaking about it so openly after all these years.”
In 1976 though, it was no longer about choice. According to this article, the mass sterilization drive of 1976 was one of the most infamous incidents that took place during the Emergency. This was apparently done to “uplift the underprivileged” but the fact that in 1976 alone, the government sterilized (mostly by force) 6.2 million men, shows how little the voice of the underprivileged mattered.
This piece rightfully states that for more than two decades now, uplifting socio-economic conditions of communities has helped control the birth rate more than controlling the reproductive organs of individuals.
Related Reading: Why Don’t Indian Men Choose Vasectomy For Family Planning?
13. Tubectomy/Tubal Ligation – Female sterilization
“My husband sent me to my parent’s place so that I can recover from the procedure in case there were any complications. My mother knew. No one else in his family knew except his supportive sister. All this secrecy helps no one. I’m glad you all talk about it now. You are the only ones who should get to choose what to do with your bodies and when,” shares a grandma with me.
Today, women bear almost the entire sterilization burden in India. According to the National Family Health Survey – 5, at 37.9%, female sterilization remains the most popular method of family planning in the country, followed by condoms (9.5%) This is no surprise, as according to the same survey, 9 out of 10 men still don’t prefer to wear a condom.
14. Condoms always to the rescue, whether you use them or not
Condoms in India gained popularity when the government mass distributed them in 1963. India’s population growth rate dropped to 1.80% by 2005 from 2.40% in 1964 with the help of Nirodh (source: Wikipedia). Before that, only the very elite and the privileged were able to source condoms for birth control.
We only wish that today, their usage was considered important by every person who has a penis and who wishes to have safe sex. Telling people to use a condom is still quite a task as cis men often don’t take the responsibility for family planning, and leave it all up to women.
15. Oral contraceptive pill
One grandma remembers fondly, “Mala D was all the rage back then in our small privileged, educated circle. I used it a lot of times too.” Oral contraceptives or emergency contraceptive pills, though effective, can lead to a host of health issues for the consumers too. Now that there’s a male contraceptive pill in the works, let’s hope that changes the way we view and consume contraceptive pills.
They say human development is the best contraceptive. It’s true. Education, income, women’s awareness and agency around reproductive rights and methods – these factors, as they grow, control the birth rate automatically. Now we know what our grandparents struggled with, and what they paved the way for. Our job is to take it a step further. With birth control accountability finally shifting a little toward men as well, things might just get better for our kids.