Fantasy has evolved from the days of Tolkien and and Lewis. We’re largely passed the era of true good versus true evil, wading into the perilous landscape of moral ambiguity. We still have elves and goblins, but sometimes the former are the bad ones and the latter are the good ones. And, in a shift that Tolkien with his refined Catholic sensibilities would doubtless disapprove of, it has become increasingly acceptable to have sex scenes in fantasy novels.
In the decades since Lord of the Rings, as people began to actually talk about—and write about—sexuality more and more frankly, fantasy authors have had to face an interesting challenge. Writers often insert a modern view of sexuality into their novels, and today we live in a world in which many people have relatively easy access to contraception—while still far from universal, access is greater than at any other time—which radically changes the ways we think about and engage in sex. But most fantasy worlds don’t have condoms or birth control pills, so authors have to come up with creative solutions. Some of these have real historical precedents, and some are unabashedly fantastical.
1. Teas and Herbs
Teas, with a range of mystical properties, are a relatively common method used in fantasy novels to prevent pregnancy. These teas range from contraceptives to abortifacients, and can sometimes be dangerous. Depending on the author, and on how magical the teas are, they may work perfectly, or they may not work at all.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin makes liberal use of a tea he calls “moon tea.” (Pro tip for fantasy writing—throw in the word “moon” to anything you want to associate with the menstrual cycle). It’s a tea made “with tansy and mint and wormwood, a spoon of honey and a drop of pennyroyal.” Woods witches and maesters can both brew these teas, but it doesn’t seem to be something most people can make on their own. It’s been used in the novels to induce abortions, but some characters also seem to use the tea, perhaps with different ingredients or in different concentrations, a bit like a modern day emergency contraceptive.
Teas like this, and the herbs used to make them, are historical as well as fantastical. Tansy and pennyroyal have historically been used as abortifacients. They’re also very dangerous, as Martin himself has acknowledged, though the slightly mystical touches added in the novels may make moon tea a bit safer than the real world herbs.
2. Early Forms of Condoms and Cervical Caps
This method doesn’t seem to come up quite as often, despite the fact that it’s as real as the teas. Perhaps they’re not as popular because wrapping up in animal skin doesn’t have quite as much of a fantasy feel to it as drinking a mystical blend of herbs. Or perhaps it’s because condoms place responsibility on the partner of the male sex, while the teas almost always place it squarely on biological women.
Rubber condoms were available as early 1839. This may be too late for fantasy settings in the middle ages, but there were plenty of other materials used before this, and early condoms—called “sheaths”—were made of linen and animal skin and were used as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome.
Condoms weren’t the only method used. A famous excerpt from Casanova’s memoirs details the use of a lemon as a DIY cervical cap. These methods, of course, were probably not particularly effective, nor were they backed up by solid knowledge on how reproduction actually worked, but they show that avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases have been important considerations for people for a very long time.
Historical romance may have the leg up on fantasy here. In Courtney Milan’s novel The Countess Conspiracy, the male protagonist, despite being something of a “rake,” uses a sheath in all of his sexual encounters. The reason for this unique use of contraception is probably because Milan’s male character is also profoundly unique in his attitudes and values: he actually seems to care about the comfort and health of the women he sleeps with. You rarely see this is most novels, including those written in modern day settings, and you certainly don’t see it all that often in fantasy.
Considering the many creative ways that writers use magic to transform all facets of life, it’s not surprising that overtly magical contraceptive techniques are some of the most commonly used in fantasy novels. If we lived in a magical world, contraception would be probably be one of the first things we applied that magic to.
The way magical contraception actually works, and who has access to it, varies widely between authors. The prevalence of the contraceptives within novels depends on the author’s unique magic system. If magic is prevalent, then contraception is more readily available. If magic is scarce, then there are usually considerable barriers to access; it may be that only the chosen few practitioners of magic can prevent pregnancy, or it may be that spells and charms that prevent pregnancy are sold at extravagant prices.
Robin Hobb’s The Realm of the Elderlings has several interesting examples of magical contraception. In one instance, a hedge-witch is able to fashion a charm that protects herself from conceiving, but the charm must be “very finely tuned to the individual woman,” so she is unable to make one that is certain to work for anyone else. It also has the side effect of making the male partner, who apparently wants a child but won’t admit it to himself, feel that the sex was “futile and barren” – though that may also just be part of his generally dour personality.
Other characters in Hobb’s novels make use of a wizardwood belly button piercing which protects against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Wizardwood is rare and expensive, however, so most women can’t benefit from this method.
4. Only Sleeping with the Same Sex
This is a very specific example, but a very fascinating one.
In C.S Pacat’s Captive Prince series, the society in which a majority of the story takes place, called Vere, actively shuns sexual relationships between biological men and women outside of marriage. However, it considers casual sexual relationships between people of the same biological sex to be completely acceptable. Besides some very erotic male sex scenes, this leads to fascinating relationship structures. The prince of Vere is encouraged and expected to sleep with male “pleasure slaves,” but isn’t allowed to be in a room with a woman unsupervised.
Sexual relationships between biological men and women in Vere are only supposed to take place in marriage, specifically for the sake of producing children. The reason that sex between people of different sexes outside of marriage is frowned upon is because of the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Particularly for the nobility, the concern is having a bastard child who will muck up the lines of inheritance.
One conversation between two men, discussing sex with women, goes like this:
“Is it different than with a man?”
“Are you curious about it? Isn’t it supposed to be taboo?”
“It is taboo. Bastards curse the line, and sour the milk, ruin the crops, and drag the sun out of the sky.”
The general concept a of members of the nobility fearing children outside of wedlock isn’t new. Usually, though, this results in women’s sexuality being sharply curtailed, while men are free to engage in any sexual activity they wish. Instead of proscribing all sexual relationships and heavily restricting the sexual autonomy of women, the nobility of Vere are encouraged to satisfy their libidos with those of the same biological sex.
This is probably the most common type of contraception used in fantasy novels. Very often, the characters take no precautions at all.
Authors handle this in a variety of ways. Sometimes the author makes it clear that the characters are running a risk, whether or not it actually results in pregnancy. Sometimes the characters do get pregnant when they weren’t planning to, and they have to navigate their lives around that; not unlike the real world, this will generally radically reshape the lives of female characters, but may or may not have any direct impact on the man.
But sometimes, characters have unprotected sex, they don’t talk or think about any potential consequences, and there are none.
This is a problem, and we need to address it.
An Argument for More Realistic Contraception in Fiction
Both herbs and early physical barriers like “sheaths” were much less effective than modern day contraceptives, and in some cases dangerous. They doubtless failed often, but the point is that people tried to prevent pregnancy. Barring more fantastical types of contraceptive, there’s no reason for a fantasy novel to not at least include these historical methods. It’s frankly unrealistic to pretend that contraception wasn’t a reality throughout the ages, and that people, particularly women, wouldn’t be concerned about the outcomes of unprotected sex.
But more important than realism is the dangerous precedent these books are setting. In worlds with highly detailed magic systems, histories, geographies, political systems, architecture, and more, the idea that issues of sexual and reproductive health are totally ignored, as if they were somehow not important enough to include in the artful and highly detailed world building, is insulting. I’ve read authors who will dedicate a paragraph to describing older men having trouble with urination, but don’t seem to think it’s worth dedicating a sentence to women’s sexual health.
“Realistic” here simply means being practical and forthright about the risks inherent in unprotected sex. Our modern views on sexual and reproductive health are still far from perfect. There are already far too many men in the real world who refuse to take responsibility for the sexual health of their partners—we don’t need our fantasy heroes doing the same. If they do, it should be made abundantly clear that they’re acting irresponsibly.
Sean Connolly is a constant reader and a sometimes writer who is particularly interested in examining themes of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. He occasionally tweets at @connollysean66