Three months ago, I withdrew from hormonal contraception.
I was fourteen when I first had sex. Chatting with an old school friend over a pint reminded me that she came with me to a sexual health clinic so I could get the implant. A whole decade ago. I was a child. I really didn’t know at the time what on earth I was signing up for but thought it was the responsible thing to do. Even at such a young age, I remember feeling the pressure in my situation to find the solution to us not getting pregnant. The first three years were painless; no periods, and no more mood swings than any other fourteen-year-old. I decided to get it replaced and again was clueless about the huge changes the same contraceptive could have not only on different women but on the same woman at different stages in her reproductive life.
I bled every week for six months, whether it be a full bleed or spotting. It doesn’t matter really, as it was hell. This time, I dragged my mum along to the sexual health clinic. I had the small procedure, and we discussed the pill. My mum hadn’t ever had any issues with it, so she encouraged me, and at that point, I was so desperate to not be losing any more blood that I was all for it.
Over the next three years, I put on over two stone. I had regular migraines, almost daily severe headaches, couldn’t lift my head off the pillow for a week before each period. My mood was erratic, I couldn’t hold in tears over tiny things. I had countless bouts of cystitis and huge clusters of mouth ulcers that doctors told me were completely coincidental in their timing every month with my period.
Back in 2016, a Twitter hashtag started trending, #MyPillStory. Hundreds of women used the hashtag to disclose personal stories of their struggles or successes with taking the pill. Stories described everything from life threatening blood clots and mental health battles to weight gain and migraines. The tweets sounded all too familiar to my own experience.
One Tweet by @gonetodeadlock stood out to me;
I’ve been on the pill 12 years and that terrifies me but I don’t even know what other choice I have really? #MyPillStory
— Abi (@gonetodeadlock) 31 March 2016
This for me really sums up the state of women’s reproductive health in the UK. A look through contraceptive pages on the NHS website, and we are told that “In the past 50 years, there have been few changes in male contraception compared with the range of options available to women.” Poor them, eh.
I was curious as to what my body would be like as just “me”, without any hormonal intervention. I turned off the daily alarm on my phone that had kept me on track with my pill for the past few years and stopped taking it. I began researching alternative options, certain I wouldn’t choose the implant or pill again.
In my own searches, one thing that cropped up again and again were apps such as Clue, Glow and Natural Cycles where women can track their fertility and cycle by logging their mood, their bleeding patterns and energy levels to get to know their body’s unique rhythm better. The spooky tailored Instagram adds that we seem to be numb to these days kept appearing. I downloaded Clue and began religiously entering my daily data. My favourite feature? Being able to import other users’ cycles so you can see when yours and your friends’ PMS will match up to become the menstrual Witches of Macbeth. (You’re welcome).
My favourite feature? Being able to import other users’ cycles so you can see when yours and your friends’ PMS will match up to become the menstrual Witches of Macbeth
Women aren’t just using these apps to track their cycle, but they’re becoming more popular as a method of contraception. This is one of the main criticisms of Natural Cycles; it brands itself as a form of contraception, yet multiple women have become pregnant whilst using it. I’m not here to comment on the medical accuracy and credibility behind the science here, for I am nowhere near qualified. I am interested in why, despite us all knowing the risks and without full medical backing, myself and thousands of other women are considering this as the most viable option. These apps have created a 21st-century discussion in reproductive health never seen before; can we really use apps in the place of medication, and moreover, can we really entertain the idea of relying on our body’s natural rhythm?
@gonetodeadlock’s tweet, and countless like it, don’t scream out to me that women feel like they have any real alternatives, but instead, feel almost pressured into no other choice but taking hormones. A dear friend and user of Clue (yes, she’s in the Clue witches’ coven), was recently given a late diagnosis of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a condition where cysts grow on the ovaries). She told me “I’ve ended countless trips to my doctors hearing that I don’t understand my own body…my own investigation and intuition, tracked religiously through Clue, resulted in a self-diagnosis of PCOS that wasn’t confirmed until after 9 further months of tests”. Despite their medical questionability, the rise in the use of these apps is an act of reclaiming reproductive agency.
Despite their medical questionability, the rise in the use of these apps is an act of reclaiming reproductive agency
I’m trying not to hormonal contraceptive bash here – I know women that it works so well for, and the discovery of the pill did revolutionise women’s agency over their reproductive health back in the 20th century. I’m very aware that people take hormonal contraception for all sorts of reasons, from acne to regulating periods. And no, I’m not in the pool of people who think that contraception is a male conspiracy to poison and suppress women. However, when it comes to its use as birth control, chemist and novelist Carl Djerassi, whose biography describes him as one of the scientists to create the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive, makes an interesting argument. In his interview with Zoe Williams for the Guardian, he says “'[Men think that as] all women are now on the pill, I don’t need to bother.’ This has become another woman’s burden.”
More than sixty years on from this first synthesis, women do indeed have more options than ever before, but as I did my own research into my personal choices in the last few months, every choice required a different form of hormone solution, and most fundamentally, it required me to have to choose. My male sexual partners have always just assumed, and until now, I had it covered. Now, I’m tracking my cycle, but I’m having unprotected sex. Unlike fourteen-year-old me, I do feel irresponsible. But, I’ve been left thinking, why don’t they?
I was dubious of Natural Cycles, Clue et al. But now, I completely understand. I think it goes deeper than all the tales of physical and mental side effects on #MyPillStory, but when I feel so alarmingly different after withdrawing from hormonal contraception, it’s not hard to see why this is a factor. I think these apps are giving modern women a new sense of agency that the pill first gave women at its invention. These apps have provided an idealistic glimpse of life without hormonal contraceptives. While relying on these apps clearly isn’t a foolproof way to stop yourself getting pregnant, the fact that many women are favouring them instead of using traditional hormonal methods begs the question; why are we the only ones trying to find a solution?
I think it’s most succinctly summed up by one tweet on the feed by @BryonySmurphy; “’Why don’t you go on birth control?” Because fuck you, that’s why”.
— B-RON 🐝 (@BryonySmurphy) 2 April 2016
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