As discussed at great length (sorry) in A Tale of Two Pills I consider my relationship with hormonal contraceptives to be over. It is an unpopular opinion, one I’ve struggled to conclude myself for a long time.
In my world, the pill has always been seen as this great feminist tool. It sat on its pedestal throughout my childhood promising independence, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation and professional advancement. All my feminist icons raved about it, my sisters took it, my friends’ acne had been cleared, boobs had flourished, pain had lessened and my school despised it – by the time I was a teenager it was the most attractive piece of candy I had ever laid my eyes on. It symbolised maturity and being a strong, no nonsense woman. Until of course, I started taking it.
Last week I read Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control by Holly Grigg-Spall. I’ve been following Holly’s stuff for a couple of years or so now, but it took my longer than I care to admit to get to the book itself. While I can’t say I agree with everything suggested in Sweetening the Pill there were dozens and dozens of moments where I found myself saying ‘so it’s not just me!’
“The pill is a rejection of femaleness. In swallowing the tablets women are swallowing the negative connotations that are attached to female biology,” Page 34.
When you strip the pill back of all the obvious benefits our doctors, and in America, the pharmaceutical companies rave about, you begin to realise that what the pill actually offers is a cure to femaleness. Hormonal acne? Take the pill. Horrible PMS? Take the pill. Heavy bleeds? Pill. Time of work due to menstruation? Pill! Period pain? Pill. And that’s before they start saying ‘hey you don’t need a period at all’ (to which the answer is the mini pill, implant or injection).
“In lowering the hormonal levels and flattening out the fluctuations the pill takes away the natural peak of libido women experience in connection with ovulation and sometimes pre-menstruation,” page 50.
I think the most poignant moment of Sweetening the Pill for me was the idea that when you try to suppress the natural lows of a menstrual cycle, you also inadvertently begin to suppress the natural highs. Menstrual cycles are (duh!) cyclical – that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Good skin and hair days are often just as common as bad ones, randy days can be just as common as days when you don’t want anyone to come near you. In fact, your cycle can work for you, it’s not always a question of fighting it. Problem is, we don’t get to know how our cycle works. It can take up to six years for a menstrual cycle to mature, I was on the pill just over two years after I started my period and it took a year to become regular after I came off the pill. For many women, life on the pill is all we really know and the withdrawal from it can be so scary that it frightens us back onto the pill.
It’s scary because when you start to think about it, you can’t not think about it. Why are we taking a pill every day when we’re only actually fertile for a few days every cycle – ought we not limit our scope a bit?
As the book discusses at the length, the ‘anti-pill’ rhetoric has always been dominated by the Religious Right. It’s what put me off. I always assumed being opposed to the pill meant be anti-feminist, sexist and backwards. Thinking that people who spoke against the pill must be religious nuts was an opinion I held for a long time. It remains an unpopular opinion. When I talk to others about my experience with the pill I’m always sure to add the disclaimer ‘not that I’m at all suggesting you stop taking the pill,’ when actually I think that might be exactly what I’m suggesting.
“FAM is absolutely not the same thing as the ineffective Rhythm Method, which tries to predict fertility based on the length of past cycles. Don’t believe those who tell you that FAM doesn’t work; women using it can achieve effectiveness rates as high as the pill – 99.4 percent.” Toni Weshler quoted in Sweetening the Pill, page 157.
What women, like myself, who have had issues with hormonal contraceptives need to do is demand more options, non-hormonal ones. Being done with hormonal birth control is not the same thing as being done with birth control. The book talks a lot about the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM). I had always associated it with the Rhythm Method, unsurprisingly preached about at my catholic school, that has been proven time and time again, not to work as a contraceptive method. Learning how FAM is different was really interesting, and it’s definitely something I’ll be looking into in the future. It’s fascinating to see how FAM and Femtech are beginning to offer an alternative.
When the pill was released women had to stand up to their doctors to get the pill, today they must fight to get off it,” page 61. #RELATABLE
I want more options for female reproductive rights and I think we have the technology to find them – the research just isn’t happening as much as it should be, YET. Rejecting the pill from my own life hasn’t been an anti-feminist act but rather, it has been a feminist act of defiance for the benefit of my own quality of life, and the quality of life of other people in similar situations. In Sweetening the Pill Holly makes reference to hoards of other articles, journals and books, many of which I have now added to my reading list. Sadly, a lot of the evidence for hormonal birth control making women depressed, feel different (worse) and less libidinous is anecdotal and is rarely taken seriously. I’m hopeful that the more anecdotal evidence we report to our doctors, the more likely it will be that quantifiable research projects will take place.