Today I saw an op-ed piece about the male birth control. It accused women of “laughing at men for being wimps.” I was left, after reading this article, thinking, ‘but that’s not what happened!’ It doesn’t really move us forward as a society to polarise the issue with contraception and reduce it to basic gender stereotypes (based on two genders), but if we’re going to, I think that the millions of women affected by this for the last 50+ years have legitimately got a valid complaint. This article talks candidly about sex, depression and contraception.
Hormonal contraception is a really big issue, and the reaction I saw online from other women (and men) was that perhaps it’s time for us to re-think our assumptions about it. Nobody laughed, nobody said anything nasty. People just pointed out it’s unfair that nobody queried these side effects with any of the female birth control patents that have been filed since 1960. People have said “but the research methods were less stringent in the 60s.” Counter point: The most recent patent for a female contraceptive pill was 2010 (I’ve linked it there), and those “known” side effects are clearly still being seen as “acceptable damage” to women.
Since the 1960s, it’s gradually become more and more common for men to assume women are on the pill. After the AIDS outbreak, men got better at using condoms for one night stands, but in my experience, and the experiences of other women I’ve talked to in the past few days, when you’re in a committed relationship, the man puts pressure on you to go on the pill.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get side effects, then I am pleased for you, please don’t get mad about this but I think the pill should be much more restricted and people should stop foisting hormones on other people.
My first boyfriend told me, “you should get the pill because I don’t get on with condoms.” I broke up with him after 3 weeks because I felt like he was saying it was my responsibility to not get pregnant during the awful sex he always wanted (dear God I knew it was awful, but I didn’t know *how* awful until I had mind-blowing sex years later). When I’ve mentioned this in private conversations, I’ve been told by other women, ‘you just have to get used to the idea of him coming inside you’ or ‘it’s part of being an adult’ or ‘it’s part of being in a relationship.’
It’s not true though! It’s a lie that society perpetuates to make us feel bad about not conforming. I think women are just as to blame as men about this issue. When a woman goes through a shitty experience as a result of something a man pressured her into, to save her own dignity, she drags other women down to her level by telling them “this is normal” or “everyone does it.” That’s how rape was normalized for decades (if not centuries), because it wasn’t just the men who were telling women this was “part of life,” the women it had happened to were doing it too. It’s a dangerous coping mechanism.
I’ve now been in my current relationship for over 6 years. We started sleeping together when I was 23. I’d had other (brief) relationships but this was the first one that lasted. I tried the pill after we’d been together for 6 months. It made me very weepy. They gave me a different dose, and kept telling me it was the progesterone (fake progestogen used in hormonal contraception) not the oestrogen, then increasing the oestrogen. I got worse and worse, until I was also irritable and depressed. I’d obviously felt emotions before but I’d been able to control them. Suddenly I was having public outbursts towards people, and at the same time I couldn’t tell people anything when I had a problem. It was the strangest feeling. Only it wasn’t. The doctors said I needed time to get used to the pill, and to come back in 6 months if I was still having issues. I was. They said the same thing: Come back in 6 months.
I gave up on that pill after 9 months and we went back to latex-free condoms. I felt like a failure as a woman. The doctors I saw (never the same one twice of course) kept trying to push the pill for various maladies, and they all said the pill couldn’t do this, but the patient information leaflet clearly stated that it could. At the same time while taking the pill, I was getting a strange feeling in one of my lower legs that felt like there was something stuck inside my leg. I didn’t know where to turn because everyone was pushing me to do something that was making me feel miserable and so I just stopped taking it and I felt better within 2 weeks, emotionally and in my leg. I mysteriously had less migraines, too. What I found out after I stopped taking it was that I never should have been prescribed it because I get migraines with aura. The doctor asked if I got migraines. I said yes. Instead of asking me to describe the symptoms (which I’d been to another doctor about in the recent past), they asked if I got them with aura. I said I didn’t know, and was about to ask “what’s an aura” when they interrupted and said “so, you get headaches then. We’ll put you on… [name of pill].” I had no idea at the time how dangerous it was to go on the pill with migraines with aura. Aura doesn’t sound like it means “characteristic symptoms surrounding a migraine” it sounds like it means “a visual aura,” so there was no way (not being medically trained) that I could know what sort of migraines I had.
In 2013 I went to a doctor about a menstrual problem (tmi: I was just bleeding out heavily) and he told me to take the pill. I said I couldn’t. That I got migraines and last time I was on it, I felt miserable and out of control of my emotions. He dismissed this and said it must be down to underlying depression. He tried to prescribe me antidepressants. I protested, so he did a test, found I didn’t have depression, and told me I’d lied on the test. Because that fitted better with his world view than the idea that a woman might get depression from the pill. I absolutely did not lie on the test; I was completely honest.
I didn’t get my first depressive episode until 2 years later and I really KNEW it was depression because I wanted to kill myself. My psychiatrist says I never had full-blown depression before 2015 (when my cyclothymia which includes MILD depression progressed to bipolar), and I agree. I never felt like I did on the pill until my parents both died at the same time. The doctor in 2013 was just changing the facts to fit his own incorrect opinion that the pill was harmless. The problem with the migraines was ignored, and he refused to listen to anything I said after I told him ‘even if you give me the prescription for antidepressants, I won’t get it filled.’ He said ‘No-one needs to know it’s depression, I can alter your medical records.’ I was shocked, but I needed the bleeding to stop. He gave me the prescription for the contraceptive pill and left it at that.
Do you know what my menstrual problem turned out to be? A vitamin deficiency. But that wasn’t even considered, because he just assumed it was something the pill would fix. Newsflash, women had menstrual irregularities that they sorted out ever since we evolved into our species and before the pill was invented. We don’t need to take the pill to solve period problems. Period.
I lost my job as a teacher because I got exhaustion and morning sickness from taking the pill he prescribed (I didn’t know until I was pregnant and experienced hyperemesis that it was the same feeling of tiredness and vomiting) and I kept getting migraines. I was very underweight at the time, and the amount of oestrogen in that pill was twice as much as I needed for my body weight. This is another thing that isn’t ever considered. Women have different sizes and metabolisms, but they only diverge from the “standard” dose of pill if you have bad side effects and keep pestering them about it. After I lost that job, I was getting migraines every single day for a month of pure agony and eventually I realized it was the pill. I was terrified to stop taking it though in case I started bleeding uncontrollably again. I went back to the doctor after the first week and he said the pill couldn’t do that. It’s actually very well documented that it can. Or at least, it was two years ago; now a lot of the information has mysteriously been edited to say that it’s the fall in oestrogen that causes migraines, which is not always true, because when my oestrogen levels were rising from pregnancy, I had day after day of migraines again.
Why is society so desperate to keep us all depressed, spotty, miserable, migrainey, with fluctuating weight and all the other problems we get from having the wrong amount of hormones in our systems, instead of just using condoms? I really don’t know.
So when the study about the male pill came out, I didn’t laugh at the men involved, I felt sorry for them that they were suffering like so many women. And I hoped that this would finally show the world that the behaviours we believe to be a “typical woman” – over-reacting (depression), crying a lot (depression), exacerbated PMS (depression) near-neurotic levels of perfectionism (depression) anxiety (depression) etc are probably quite so prolific because they’re actually down to the fact people have been fucking with women’s hormones for 50 years (of course there are plenty of people who have these for other reasons or no reason but the incidence is so high in women). Why? Why are 19 million American women suffering from depression (stats from link above)?
My other concern about the male hormonal contraception is that it’s going to make condom evasion worse. Some men will do anything to avoid condoms. I wouldn’t believe a man who told me he was on the pill or injection unless I saw him have it, and I wouldn’t trust it to be effective.
They claimed one of the reasons the study was discontinued was because the male hormonal contraception had a low effectiveness rate, of 96%. That made me roll my eyes. IF TAKEN CORRECTLY, the mini-pill, or progesterone-only-pill, is only 81-99% effective (so the mid point there is 90%), and yet the mini-pill is licensed and handed out to women like it’s candy, and it’s our fault if we get pregnant and we mustn’t have been taking it properly and it must have been the antibiotics/alcohol/wrong kind of snow. This article by the Guardian claims that the “ideal-world” effectiveness of the male and female pills, compared to the “real-world effectiveness” of condoms (they claim 82%) makes these shitty hormones better. The two statistics are incomparable. It’s exceedingly difficult to get the “real world” effectiveness of any method of contraceptive because all the “your body your choice” propaganda only uses the idealized statistics, in which condoms are 98% effective if used correctly. None of these “real-world” stats can ever explain how they arrive at their conclusions, but since I’ve had sex over 300 times (conservative estimate if we assume on average 1x per week) and haven’t got pregnant 6 times (or ever while using condoms), so I have to question the reliability of any of those stats, and I think we have to consider that perhaps some (not all) people are lying to themselves when they report how they got their partner pregnant, to defer responsibility for the pregnancy. The amount of excuses that are made and statistics that are skewed to make the contraceptive pill look good are unbelievable. In the 1960s, it might well have represented female emancipation and freedom, but nowadays, it’s the thing that shackles us to the kitchen sink by filling us with phantom nesting hormones and making us anxious and depressed so we can’t go anywhere, do anything, or achieve our potential.
It’s no longer a step towards feminism to keep defending the pill and giving it out to women for any minor malady, and it’s time to stop calling people anti-feminist when they try to speak out against it, or for labelling women who are now speaking out about the inequality here “radical feminists” or “feminazis.” It’s not a radical point of view to want to avoid physical or emotional pain, regardless of gender. Did we really have to wait until the same thing happened to men before anyone even considered this issue?
What’s more depressing than the actual side effects is the fact that, in two or three weeks time, nothing will have changed. Doctors will still be pressuring women to go on the pill for any tenuous reason (broke your leg? Try the contraceptive pill, it’ll fix those bones for you!) and women will feel like they have no option but to do as they’re told by the doctor. After all, they know best. When this happens outside of medicine, we call this sort of over-use of a “miracle cure,” whose effectiveness isn’t proven repeatably (empirically), pseudoscience, or we call it “woo science” or quackery. It’s usually associated with the sort of people who try to cure end-stage cancer by drinking green smoothies. And there, in the midst of modern medicine, like a microcosm of the wider issues with pharmaceutical and medical “knowledge,” is the pill, shining like a beacon of bad science, waiting to disempower the next generation of twentysomething women whose only crime was wanting a steady relationship or wanting their acne to clear up.
Apologies to anyone offended by the fact this issue is by its nature a heteronormative one and that this article was less inclusive to other genders/sexualities than I generally prefer to be when talking about these sort of issues.
Update: The severe side effects of the contraceptive pill have been known about and fully documented since it first came out, and planned parenthood is defending the pill because it serves their own agenda (link here). Why the fuck is it still being pushed on women?