I recently made what felt like a very big decision in my life to stop taking the birth control pill… not to try to get pregnant mind you, though some of those I told incorrectly read this as the subtext of my decision. I stopped taking the birth control pill because I didn’t like what it was doing to my body. So, I am taking my body back… but from the pill? Really? Didn’t it, in some ways, give me a kind of freedom? Didn’t it do what it promised and help me to feel that I was being responsible in my sex life (since I don’t want kids right now)? Yes, I suppose it did; and I very much believe that access to contraception is a very important feminist and religious issue. … But after a three year on and off relationship and six years steady with pills, all with different side effects, all with different demands on my metabolism and libido, I began to feel a stranger to my nether regions and so I have decided to stop.
Birth control pills and other hormone based contraceptives come with a warning: “may increase your risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. Do not smoke when you are taking the pill and do not take the pill if you are or may become pregnant.” Weighing these risks against the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy or their own desire for a kind of freedom in sexual expression, millions of women in the United States find the pill worth the risk, myself included. In fact, according to the National Survey of Family Growth between 2006-2008, 10.7 million women between 15 and 44 risked the pill; whereas, 42.8 million women between 15 and 44, 82.3%, had taken the risk at some point in their lives.
The pill can hurt, but it can also protect and helps many women to claim authority over their own reproductive health. But what about the side effects we don’t know about or we don’t see? I personally felt like I was being responsible and proactive in terms of my sexual health when I originally chose to take the pill… but at some point I stopped choosing it and felt like it was something I had to do, even when I stopped being able to hear and feel my body.
My story is not an uncommon one. For some time, despite the fact that I had taken the pill before, I was sexually active and not taking a hormone based contraceptive. I used condoms and my boyfriend at the time, hated condoms. He repeatedly pressured me to have sex without protection and consistently drew attention to the fact that “there would be no problem” if I would just go on the pill. While I resisted his pressure to start the pill, I remembered the “lesson,” that “the pill” and its repercussions were my responsibility. I went on the pill right away at the first sign that my next relationship was about to take a turn for the sexual. It made me feel protected. It made me feel responsible too. But gradually, it also made me feel less. I was less aroused, less interested and actually experienced less sexual sensation altogether. I passively observed this gradual deadening for 6 years, mixed with other problems such as abnormal bleeding which I discovered later was the result of BV infections I that I simply did not know I had and did not physically feel.
Google-ing “the pill, side effects (and) women’s libido,” I was surprised and not surprised by how little “news” addressed this sexual health issue. The best piece I read was from www.askmen.com entitled “Libido and the Pill” in the website’s love and dating section. It explains the way in which the hormones in birth control pills affect a woman’s testosterone levels and may actually permanently damage her libido. Other articles debated the merits of this research, claiming that women’s sexual interest may wax and wane regardless of whether or not she is takes hormonal contraception. One article noted the “irony” of the situation.
Ironic or not, the comical or nonchalant attitude towards some women’s sexual health issues is often alarming to me. I cannot help but ask myself, if there were a male hormonal contraceptive would it even be marketed if it caused such a side effect? If a men’s pill came with a warning that said: “may cause difficulty in achieving erection,” or “may lead to impotence.” Of course, the problem is also that pills do not come with these types of warnings. Which leads me to another sad conclusion. Medical and consumer culture definitions of a woman’s sexual health often have nothing to do with her sexual pleasure.
I used to say to myself, “maybe when I try to have a baby I will finally get to feel more from sex again,” because in my world, for so long, that was the only “excuse” to stop using hormonal birth control. Only by talking with my female friends, hearing about their contraceptive horror stories, their methods and their reasons, did I finally empower myself to stop taking the pill. I am not exaggerating when I say that its like a part of me feels alive again, not just sexually.
I am not against the pill—I truly believe it is a valuable resource for women and a way that we can take control of our bodies. But I do think we should be more aware of the risks. I am craving “her stories” about contraception, because I think they will help us make more informed and empowering choices about our sexual health.
16 thoughts on “Taking my body back from… the pill? A call for more of “her stories” about contraception By Sara Frykenberg”
Is this an age thing? Most of my friends used the diaphragm. I used the pill for about a year and after reading about side effects changed to the diphragm which I used successfully all my premenopause life. You can put it in before you go out, before dinner, etc. or you can put it in after you start making out. For me it was no big deal.
I’m not sure. When I went to my gyn last, she encouraged me not to use the diaphram because she suspected I’d forget to put it in at the right time. I guess she didn’t think it was very effective. I’ve heard that as long are you’re good about putting it in, then it’s really not a problem.
I wonder if this is a generational difference.. because like Sarah said below, for me, going through undergrad, it was just what you did– every girl you knew who was having sex was on the pill. I wasn’t having sex then and I was still on the pill during my sophomore year to regulate my period. I was taught that the diaphragm just wasn’t as effective… though I am now more inspired to consider other effective non-hormonal options for contraception.
Your article was so timely for me! Just last night, my partner and I were discussing my going off birth control pills. To be frank, birth control is making me a crazy person, and he is encouraging me to stop taking it, just for the sake of my sanity (and his I’m sure). He’s a great guy, considering the fact that for about a week out of every month I have the worst mood swings. Some months are worse than others, but last week was the icing on the cake. I was crying almost everyday, and could not think of a reason why I was sad. I haven’t experienced any recent life changes, and overall my life is great. I really have no reason to be unhappy about anything, and therefore I know it must be the hormones that are putting me in an awful mood.
Once I finish off this month, I’m done taking birth control pills. I may look into an IUD, but I seriously cannot live with myself taking extra hormones anymore. I can’t wait to have my life back. I’m thankful to have such an understanding and encouraging partner too. I hope that more couples are open about this with each other. Communication has definitely helped us get through this.
I’m so glad my post came at a good time for you and I am so glad that your are making this decision for yourself!! I too am very grateful for a very loving and encouraging partner who has supported this decision, particularly because after a long relationship with the pill, my emotions are adjusting to the absence of these extra hormones ;) I am really looking forward to getting back in touch with my bodies own rhythms!
This was very interesting. My problem is this: how do I know if it’s the pill or the anti-depressants that are lowering my sex drive? Or is it both? I certainly can’t go off the anti-depressants (regardless of what my more holistic friends recommend), but the pill is entirely my decision.
I’ve never looked at it that way, though. When I reached age 16, I didn’t ask myself, “Is the pill for me?”. I was told by society and my community that it was the thing to do; to take the pill. Television, movies, magazines, and even friends have been telling me for my entire life that girls go on the pill. Not “girls can choose the pill”. “Girls go on the pill.” Thanks for this small epiphany with large implications.
I really appreciate the way you described the messages you received by society about the pill: about going on it rather than choosing it– its really exactly what I’ve felt so many times!… to the point that it made me feel guilty thinking about going off it, irresponsible or… like maybe some inner part of me really did want to get pregnant (which I don’t! not now, anyways). I am really learning how to listen to myself and trust myself more as a part of my spiritual path right now; and its in that process, I finally knew it was not just ok, but right for me to stop! Thank you for your reflections. :)
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small…
Oh wait, those are someone else’s lines.
One pill made me vomit and one pill made me cry, and the one I took the longest gave me yeast infections all the time.
The patch made my heart rate scary.
The ring/cap/diaphragm are not for me – I’m too small and sensitive on the inside.
Condoms are a pain. I’m allergic to latex and the non-latex ones seem to have some fitting issues.
So I took the plunge and have the Mirena IUD. It does have light hormones, and I’m a little more prone to yeast infections, but most of the time it’s fine. The insertion process hurts in ways I couldn’t possibly describe. I’m 3 years into the 5 year stint and I don’t have a period, which is nice. My steady partner and I can have sex when we want with no planning, and I don’t have to remember to swallow a pill.
I still really do wish there was a better alternative, though.
There is: political lesbianism.
I remember a conversation that I had back in college with some of my guy friends. I was talking about the side-effects of the pill. I explained the mood swings (for me it was abrupt rage, for others it is a heightening of depression, still others “the weepies”), the weight gain despite the nausea and lack of appetite, and the exacerbated insomnia.
It was one of those conversations with old friends that people sometimes stumble into because everyone is safe and open.
“You know,” I brainstormed, “It would just be nice if there were some kind of pill that guys could take so that we could have more options, you know?”
They snorted. “Hell no. We wouldn’t do that!” they explained. They looked at me as if I was stupid. I was shocked at the abrupt change from good friend to condescending smirk.
“Why not?” I protested.
“What if that pill might cause, I don’t know, permanent sterility, you just don’t mess with a man’s body like that.” He shuddered.
”What if it didn’t,” I pressed. “What if you knew 100% for sure this meant that you would only be sterile for the next 36 hours.”
“I still wouldn’t do it,” they both agreed. This was perfectly reasonable. “We could just use a condom. I’ve taken care of my responsibility.”
”But that’s exactly what you’re asking us to do. You are asking us to completely rearrange our hormones so that our body is too freaked out and tricked to actually get pregnant. We risk our lives because of blood clots and we definitely risk our sanity. It can be a kind of scary thing. That takes a toll.”
“Yeah,” my friend said, his voice still wrapped in the dulcet condescending tones used to explain easy solutions to small children. “But we never have to worry about getting pregnant. At this point if you do get pregnant it’s your own fault.”
I realized then even with these men who were such good and close friends they were still operating out of a very strong patriarchal paradigm of who’s to blame when reproductive choices go wrong and who’s to bear the burden of these choices.
Sarah, I agree, the pill has done wonderful liberative things for women to take ownership of their sexuality. Yet the extra agency from the ability to protect ourselves from unwanted pregnancy hasn’t yet liberated us from the punishments of being a female body in our society. The pill does have a long series of possible side effects and women’s bodies are expected to bear the brunt of sexuality, either from pregnancy or for the pursuit of reproductive choice. It’s a very important to realize that a pill doesn’t automatically cure our society.
Thank you for this post!
The diaphragm has a 1-2% failure rate if used properly. It is in a woman’s “hands” in the symbolic and literal sense of the word, and a search of the internet suggests it also provides some protection against stds. I got my info from Our Bodies, Ourselves as did most feminists of my generation. Their website shows a woman holding a diaphragm. This book gave us courage to question our doctors and to seek out feminist doctors.
I love “Our Bodies Ourselves”! This month also marks its 40th anniversary. It was celebrated on Oct. 1st here in Boston and will continue to be celebrated across the country: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/40thanniversary.asp
My herstory: when I still had hetero sex, I tried the pill for about a year (about 10 yrs ago now). I was iffy about it – the fact that I would be the one artificially affecting my body and my body’s cycle at the risk of all kinds of side effects, never sounded quite right to me. And then dealing with its effects on me…I only lasted a year. Then I educated myself about my body, how it works, its cycles, how to be in tune with all of it. And with the help of a couple women centered health books, I started tracking my fertility naturally, without artificial or chemical means, and was very successful. To this day I have a much more in tune relationship with my body and love the awareness and knowledge I have of my cycles – everything from the way my fluids change at different times in the month, the location/position of my cervix, to the effects that my natural hormone fluctuation has on my moods – it’s all part of me and I work with it.
I love and celebrate the miracle of our human bodies – they really are amazing things! Especially a woman’s body, designed to birth new life. Blessed be!
Until this past May, I was on Depo Provera for 8 years. For the bulk of those years, it was freeing not to have to deal with the discomfort and the mess of my monthly cycle, in addition to not relying on my partner for protection.
…but then I wanted my body back and am finally with a partner who was completely supportive of whatever possibly awful transition my body would experience after getting off that shot. Communication is definitely important!! Thankfully my experience after the shot was not a nightmare and I’m pretty much back to a regular cycle, and my partner is nothing but affirming and supportive if I have an ‘off’ day… He loves my womanhood and ironically it’s freeing to have it back!
I do completely agree that it is a woman’s choice regarding protection, but that knowing all the benefits AND risks is fair to every woman making that decision.
I really appreciate all of you sharing your stories with me and with each other. I think I mentioned in my post that it was through really talking with other women that I started to take myself and what my body was trying to tell me more seriously. Thank you so much for your encouragement and your feedback! Its been empowering to take my body back; and I love that I have the opportunity to share that here, and that I have the opportunity to hear about how other women are empowering themselves as well!
Thank you so much for this post! I was on the pill for eight years and finally there was this little voice inside of me that was screaming, “It’s time to stop!” I thought about stopping taking the pill for about four or five months before I made the firm decision to get off the hormones.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy taking the pill, but it just started to feel wrong. I felt completely out of tune with my body – and taking the pill really became more of a chore than anything else. I would put off going to the pharmacist to get the next month’s pill until it was nearly too late. But everyone kept telling me that the pill is the safest. The safest for whom, I wondered? Certainly not for me, because I was the one feeling uncomfortable with myself and my body.
The worst was that now that I’m off the pill, everyone is assuming that it’s because I’m preparing myself for pregnancy, as if the pill is the only option women have; the only responsibility we have in our relationships. I felt guilty that I wasn’t protecting myself the way the media and even my own family had insisted I do.
I’ve been off the pill now for about six months, and I haven’t felt so in tune with my body in my life. I was on the pill just after I reached my 20s, and my poor body had never adjusted to its own rhythms before I started to supplement and confuse it. Now, I know exactly what my body is asking for – strangely, I can even pinpoint my cravings, and know when it is because I’m thirsty and for what my body is looking for.
The scary thing is how long it has taken my body to get used to the lack of the pregnant hormone. This is what I’ve done to my body, and now I have taken it back.