Created By: EcliptFebruary 11, 2009
Troped

Low-tech Contraception

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Needs a title. Any title.

If writers want their characters to have sex but a pregnancy would derail the plot, they have a number of options. The easiest thing to do is to simply ignore the entire issue and just get on with things. Sometimes, however, they feel a need to explain why a character doesn't seem to be getting pregnant despite their activities. In fantasy or historical fiction, though, modern types of contraception are not likely to be found (although some of them are actually Older Than They Think). Something special is therefore in order - a Handwave and/or some Applied Phlebotinum. Maybe the characters "know the right herbs", or maybe they have a magic pendant, or maybe humans and elves can't breed, or maybe they're sterile for some reason that only exists in the particular setting. It usually won't matter much what the actual method is - the point is, the characters can entertain themselves as frequently as necessary without the writer having to worry about biological cause and effect getting in the way of the story.

This is generally a requirement if the setting has Eternal Sexual Freedom, assuming the writer bothers to explain it.

  • Clan of the Cave Bear has the herbal method.
  • In The Witcher, Witchers are sterile as a result of all the deliberate mutations they undergo - which is damned convenient given how frequently Geralt ends up in bed with somebody.
  • Kushiels Legacy seems to have divinely-sourced contraception?
  • The Liavek books have a special tea.
  • Tea made from tansy (a flowering herb) pops up in a number of works, such as A Song Of Ice And Fire and the Night Angel trilogy, although this induces abortions rather than prevents pregnancy in the first place. Although it sounds like the authors invented it, this one is actually based on real life - people used tansy in the Middle Ages.

Community Feedback Replies: 20
  • February 11, 2009
    Pom Rania
    There was an article on cracked.com about the most terrifying contraceptives used in human history.... That should provide you with either a good laugh or some useful material or both.
  • February 11, 2009
    Madrugada
    "The right herbs" aren't Applied Phlebotiniun, considering how many there actually are that can be used either as contraceptives or early-term abortifacients. Besides tansy, there's pennyroyal and slippery elm as abortifacients. Herbal contraceptives include Queen Anne's Lace seed and rue.
  • February 11, 2009
    Goldfritha
    They're Applied Phlebotinum. Considering how many of them can seriously harm or even kill the woman in Real Life, obviously they are dealing with fantasy variants.
  • February 11, 2009
    Indefatigable
    If there's historical evidence that a particular thing was used as a contraceptive, even if it's more dangerous or less effective than the modern solutions, does it still count as Applied Phlebotinum?

    I don't know the history of this particular subject, but it's worth asking because it could just be an example of something happening far more often (or less often) in fiction than it does in real life, statistically speaking (see Death By Childbirth).
  • February 11, 2009
    Freezer
    There are multiple references in Ancient Greek writings to herbs that can make be used for contraceptive concoctions that would be reliable by today's medical standards. Unfortunately, it seems the concepts of conservation and cultivation never occured to them; nearly all the named plants in said writings were harvested to extinction.
  • February 12, 2009
    Unknown Troper
    There's a swedish song (really a matter of Musical Dissonance here) that is a really sweet high strung choral thing about meeting your beloved on the meadows... The refrain is basically reciting a bunch of flowers... That can be used as aboritficants or contraceptives...
  • February 12, 2009
    Indefatigable
    This could be a sister trope to Womens Mysteries, because whether they're magical phlebotinum or historically verified herbals, it's presumed that the woman is taking care of it. If the story is told from a male perspective we never hear about it, but female characters may refer to these things among themselves.

    Bumping this because I think it's worth discussing. Also, is there a trope for the apparent lack of sexually transmitted diseases? With the exception of modern latex and rubber condoms, most contraceptives don't actually prevent diseases from spreading.
  • February 12, 2009
    Indefatigable
    Scratch that last note, there is already a trope about STD Immunity, so this one only has to cover contraceptives.
  • February 12, 2009
    nifboy
    Fable 2 provides the player with condoms made from animal intestine.
  • February 12, 2009
    Finn Mac Cool
    A Song Of Ice And Fire also included a much more mundane form of contraceptive: the guy simply pulls out of the woman before orgasming.
  • February 12, 2009
    Nate the Great
    A Modest Destiny has one character consider taking herbs to force an abortion. Yet another step on the slippery slope into Darker And Edgier that is the works of Sean Howard.
  • February 12, 2009
    Kuciwalker
    Finn Mac Cool: I think we already have an article on The Pull Out Method.
  • February 12, 2009
    Indefatigable
    It seems to me that the known dangerous uses, the herbal abortions and whatnot, are actually an aversion of this trope.

    The trope is that people in any setting, no matter how primitive, have contraceptive methods that are out of sight and out of mind. It enables lots of hot hetero sex without anyone having to worry about pregnancy.
  • February 12, 2009
    Madrugada
    Hmmm. I don't know. If the aversions massively outnumber the times that it's played straight, doesn't that make the aversions the trope? I guess what I'm getting at is, is it really a trope that "people don't talk about birth control -- unless there's a problem with it"?
  • February 12, 2009
    Unknown Troper
    The "humans and elves can't breed" version shows up in the Known Space books by Larry Niven, where "rishathra", sex between different humanoid species, is common. STD Immunity also applies.
  • February 12, 2009
    Indefatigable
    @Madrugada: actually, I don't know that the aversion is more common than playing it straight.

    The OP's definition starts with "pregnancy would derail the plot". In other words, this is a trope that is used when the author does not want the character to get pregnant. That's phlebotinum in a nutshell, whether it's a made-up magic spell or the name of a real herb -- it's mentioned, it's explained that it will provide the effect that the story requires, and away we go.

    A lot of historicals and fantasies use this. It could be argued that the only times it isn't used are the times when the author does want a character to get pregnant for one reason or another (the plot could require pregnancy and a child, or it could require a miscarriage or an abortion, resulting in illness or death for the mother). But now we're moving into a non-phlebotinum type of story, where if contraception was used it didn't work, and that's a more realistic and less handwavey thing from the get-go.
  • February 12, 2009
    foxley
    An article on hedge wizards in Dungeons And Dragons in Dragon Magazine #163 had a list of minor herbal and alchemical potions available from hedge wizards. One of these was 'maidenweed', a potion that prevents pregnancy in females who drink it. The effect lasts for a month.
  • February 12, 2009
    Madrugada
    @Indefatigable: I just don't know exactly where I stand on this.

    Not bringing up the possibility of pregnancy can be a plot point or it can simply be The L Aw Of Conservation Of Detail. If a pregnancy would derail the plot, and it isn't going to happen because of that, but it realistically should happen, then there's a need for an explanation of how it's being prevented. Otherwise, contraception is just like who raises the pigs that all the pork comes from or what breed of dog is used to guard the sheep: it's irrelevant to the story, and therefore not explained.

    Besides, pregnancy isn't an inevitable end result of having sex -- a woman isn't fertile for roughly 75% of the time, and during the other 25%, the rate of pregnancy from unprotected sex is only about 20% or so.
  • February 12, 2009
    Desertopa
    It's not only used as a devise to handwave the characters not getting pregnant though. It can also be used to include lots of sex without making the characters seem to lack foresight or prudence.
  • July 10, 2009
    Eclipt
    Revisiting this, possibly to launch it - taking into account corrections and comments from the replies, of course. Basically, all I'm trying to do with this is to list the various unorthodox contraceptive methods that get used in fantasy works. The question of why authors may or may not feel the need to come up with such things is probably already dealt with in a different trope, so I suppose that sort of thing shouldn't intrude on this one.

    At any rate, I think this would need a better title. Maybe Fantasy Contraceptives, or can someone think of something clever?

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