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.