Questioning The Pill

Lauren O’Neal pans Holly Grigg-Spall’s forthcoming book, Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, which insists that the pill is a tool of oppression that separates women from their natural state:

[Grigg-Spall’s] ideal birth-control method … is a secular update to the rhythm method, and we get pages of detail about taking temperatures, checking cervical mucus, observing cervical position, and charting this information every day. Honestly, this all sounds like a wonderful way to avoid pregnancy for women who have the time and inclination and who don’t experience certain menstrual, uterine, and ovarian disorders. For most people, though, it’s impractical. … [T]he book presents birth control as a simple issue. The only criterion a woman need involve in her decision is whether or not a given method is natural and therefore healthy. The demands a job and children make on her time are not factors. Rape, abuse, and coercion are not factors. There is only natural and unnatural.

Marcotte also criticizes the book’s focus on “naturalness”:

Grigg-Spall presents the rhythm method as more natural than the birth control pill, but it can easily be argued that the behavior of monitoring cervical mucus and using technologies like calendars and thermometers is also “unnatural”. Indeed, one of the more irritating problems with the naturalistic fallacy is the tendency to assume that technologies become more “natural” with time, but there was a time before humans were using calendars and the thermometers and clocks used to chart your menstrual cycle are even newer inventions. This tendency to think that technology x time = natural shows how intellectually vapid the entire argument from nature really is. Bizarrely, nothing is more natural than developing new technologies to make our lives easier, in the sense of “natural” meaning “inherent to humanity” or “hardwired”.

Kelly Bourdet’s bottom line on the book:

Sweetening the Pill will appeal to many people who believe in the power of collective menstruation, the rightness of our connection to moon phases, and the oppression of patriarchal capitalism. But it’s not going to convince many women who feel they “need” birth control to switch to other methods.

But Bourdet also highlights some constructive parts of Sweetening the Pill and the troubling aspects of hormonal contraception featured in the book:

The alteration of testosterone [by the pill] factors into women’s choice of sexual partners and mates. A study from last year revealed that women on hormonal birth control—which suppresses naturally occurring testosterone—were attracted to men with lower testosterone levels (usually the opposite is true). However when women go off of the pill, and their testosterone levels increase, their attraction to their partners decreased. This is a powerful, life-altering side effect to be sure. And it’s fair to wonder whether a drug that could alter our choice in long-term partners is too powerful for comfort. …

In a constructive suggestion on how women unhappy on their birth control can still control their fertility, Grigg-Spall quotes from Heather Corinna’s article, “Love the Glove”:

If we’re going to talk about condoms changing how sex feels, we need to remember that something like the pill does too, and unlike condoms, it changes how a woman feels all the time, both during and outside of sex. Condoms are the least intrusive and demanding of all methods of contraception.

Though less effective (given perfect adherence and use) than birth control, the essay brings up an excellent point. We frame access to hormonal contraception as a hard won right for women—and it is—but neglect to represent the idea that it has its consequences. The idea that condoms muffle sexual sensation in a burdensome way for men, and thus hormonal solutions are “better,” is an extension of a worldview that women are solely responsible for both providing sexual pleasure and for controlling their own fertility. While some women don’t experience uncomfortable side effects when taking the pill, some do, and it’s important to consider men equally capable in taking steps to prevent pregnancy.