Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Depo Provera and menstrual management

April 8th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Melinda Gates speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning; Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks back I did an interview with Leslie Botha regarding the distribution of Depo Provera to women in developing countries. Recently Leslie shared with me an email she received from someone working in a family planning clinic in Karnataka, India. He described how he was providing the Depo Provera injection to women and finding that, after they stopped using it, they were not experiencing menstruation for up to nine months. He asked for advice – “what is the procedure to give them normal monthly menses….is there any medicine?”

I have written previously about one potential problem of providing women with Depo Provera – the possibility of continuous spotting and bleeding that would not only be distressing with no warning that this might happen and no medical support, but could also be difficult to navigate in a place with poor sanitation or with strong menstrual taboos. As women in developed countries are so very rarely counseled on side effects of hormonal methods of contraception, it seems unlikely women in developing countries receive such information. As we know, some women will instead experience their periods stopping entirely during use of the shot and, as we see from this email and from the comments on other posts written for this blog, long after use.

In this context I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation’s programs for contraception access have a very public focus on Depo Provera. The method was mentioned again by Melinda Gates in a recent TED interview and when she was interviewed as ‘Glamor magazine Woman of the Year’ the shot was front-and-center of the discussion of her work. Yet the Foundation also funds programs that provide support for menstrual management and sanitation.  Continuous bleeding from the shot, or cessation of bleeding altogether, would seem to be an important connecting factor between these two campaigns.

Much has been written on the menstrual taboo in India and how this holds women back. In the US we have come to embrace menstrual suppression as great for our health and our progress as women. We see menstruation as holding women back in a variety of ways. However, in India could lack of menstruation also be seen as a positive outcome? Instead of dealing with the menstrual taboo with expensive programs that provide sanitary products and education, might suppressing menstruation entirely be seen as a far more cost-effective solution? It may seem like a stretch, but I am surprised this has not been brought up during debates about the need for contraceptive access in developing countries. Yet of course, the menstrual taboo may well extend to absence of menstruation – a woman who does not experience her period might also be treated suspiciously or poorly.

When Melinda Gates says women “prefer” and “request” Depo Provera I always wonder whether that’s after they’ve been told how it works (perhaps described as a six-month invisible contraception) or after they’ve had their first shot or after they’ve been on it for two years and then, via FDA guidelines, must find an alternative? How much follow up is there? As the self-injectable version is released widely how will women be counseled? Gates argues that the invisibility of the method is part of the draw as women do not have to tell their partners they are using contraception, but what happens when they bleed continuously or stop entirely?

It seems to me like there might be a real lack of communication – both between medical practitioners and their patients, drug providers and the practitioners, and those who fund these programs with everyone involved. It is often argued that the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries justify almost any means to prevent pregnancy – including the use of birth control methods that cause health issues. How much feedback are groups like the Gates Foundation getting on women’s preferences if they seem to be so unaware of the potential problems, even those that would greatly impact their wider work?

Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?

March 11th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:

“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.

The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.

Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?

This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer.  In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action.  I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”

What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer.  Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.

It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth,  but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.

Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:

“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.

We Need To Talk About Ovarian Cysts

February 27th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

One of my PhD students and I are attempting to start a new research project on women’s experiences of ovarian cysts. Because this is a new project for us, we have spent a lot of time researching the topic to see what others have to say about it. What we’ve found is that there is a serious lack of information about this kind of reproductive difficulty and, as a result, there is a lot of confusion among doctors and women themselves about ovarian cysts. Here is what we have found so far:
-There are lots of different kinds of ovarian cysts. Thus, when someone has an ovarian cyst they can still have quite a range of experiences. Cysts can be of varying sizes and can be filled with fluid, gaseous substances, blood, or semi-solid tissues. The two main categories are “functional cysts” and “non-functional cysts”:

  • Functional cysts are typically fluid-filled and are tied to the ebbs and flows of the menstrual cycle. They can increase or decrease in size alongside different phases of the cycle. When women have problematic symptoms, doctors often just have them wait a few menstrual cycles to determine whether the cysts will decrease in size themselves or remain a problem. The other common solution is prescribing women birth control pills, to help prevent functional cysts from growing. Women often don’t know they have functional cysts however. It is possible that many of us have them but do not know, because there are often no signs or symptoms. If there are symptoms, then it’s often because the cyst has grown enough to put pressure on other organs or because the cyst has ruptured. Women in their 20s and 30s are often diagnosed with functional cysts, but women over 40 can still get small follicular cysts that fall in the “functional” category.
  • Non-functional cysts do not correspond to the menstrual cycle, and often are filled with tissue. There are lots of different kinds of non-functional cysts, which makes this type of cyst even more confusing for women and doctors. From what we read, this category of cysts is often confused with fibroids and laparoscopic or open abdominal surgery is often the answer (depending on the size of a cyst). Sometimes these types of cysts can be linked to endometriosis and ovarian cancer, but are not necessarily predictive of those conditions; that is, some women just get cysts and that’s it. When women over 40 are diagnosed with this type of cyst, doctors often recommend complete hysterectomies (even though women themselves might not want this solution).

-We’ve also found that there are a range of diagnostic tools that can detect cysts (e.g., pelvic exams, ultrasounds, MRIs, and CAT scans) and a range of treatment plans and procedures (e.g., just making women wait to see if the cyst decreases in size, birth control pills, laparoscopic surgery, open abdominal surgery to remove just the cyst, hysterectomy, oophorectomy).

-We have read up on women’s experiences on online support forums, however, and realize that women typically experience misdiagnosis at first. When they present a problem for women, cysts have symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy, indigestion and IBS, menopause, PMS, PID, PCOS, gallstone or kidney problems, hernias, cancer, etc. As a result, women are told they are pregnant, fat, need new shoes, are just postpartum, eating badly, etc. It is often months before diagnosis, and months or years before treatment, unless a doctor knows to look for cysts. If women go to the ER or a family practitioner with signs and symptoms, they are often misdiagnosed more quickly; OBGYNs seem to be able to diagnose more quickly but still may be unsure as to what the solution is.

-In our quick perusal of online forums about ovarian cysts, we can see that it is not just women in the U.S. who are desperately searching for answers about ovarian cysts. It is women in many other countries as well. Women report the long waits until diagnosis and treatment, the worries about whether cysts will reoccur, their worries about the appropriate diagnoses and treatments, their distrust of doctors (who seem to be just as confused as women themselves most of the time), and the constant conflation of ovarian cysts with other reproductive and non-reproductive difficulties as well as with normal reproductive experiences. Everyone is confused and the common experiences seem to be confusion, worry, second-guessing, misdiagnosis, and long waits for answers.

The Big, Fat, Menstrual Untruth in Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book

February 5th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

I was curious. If Cameron Diaz’s purpose in writing  The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body was empowerment, helping women to understand how their bodies work, would she include information about the menstrual cycle?

There was no way of knowing from her Jan. 22, 2014 radio interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q. I listened to Diaz explain that conversations she’d had and overheard in the last few years made it clear to her that women are completely confused about their bodies. She said this had her thinking, “Wow, that’s such a crazy thing that after so many years of living in your body that you actually don’t have an understanding of it.”

Then she revealed her intention in writing the book – to empower women to make “informed decisions about their nutrition and their physical activity.” Judging from this comment, the book’s subtitle, and the fact she did not mention menstruation during the interview, I wondered if the menstrual cycle would even be mentioned.

I sought out The Body Book at my local bookstore and quickly scanned the table of contents and index. I found myself smiling, thinking about Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, and how she revealed in Chapter 1 that whenever she gets a new sex book she “immediately” looks up “‘masturbation’ to see where the author really stands on sex.” Whenever I see a new book about women’s health I look up “menstruation” to see what the author really knows about the menstrual cycle. Turns out Diaz, and/or her co-author Sandra Bark, know both a lot and not so much.

In Chapter 21, Your Lady Body (the book’s introduction starts with the salutation Hello, Lady!), she presents a fairly accurate endocrinological description of the three phases of the menstrual cycle: follicular, ovulatory, luteal. So far so good. But then, in the last paragraph of the luteal phase section, comes the big, fat menstrual untruth, the implication that whether you use hormonal birth control or not, this is how your menstrual cycle unfolds. It’s an absolute falsehood, and one that many women in this age of burgeoning body literacy are sure to see through.

Photo Illustration by Laura Wershler
Note: This is the only reference to contraception in The Body Book

The last paragraph of this luteal phase description (page 182) is ridiculously misleading. If a woman’s birth control method is the pill, patch, ring, implant or (Depo-) Provera shot, the synthetic hormones each contains will shut down her normal menstrual cycle function. She most definitely will not experience a cycle with follicular, ovulatory and luteal phases. Hormonal contraception does not “protect” her eggs. She will not ovulate, therefore the egg will not die. She may have a “withdrawal bleed” but it is not a true period. This is the truth.

I can understand, possibly, why Diaz made this egregious implication. What were her choices? Open a can of worms? State categorically, as every description of menstrual cycle function should, that you don’t ovulate or experience a normal menstrural cycle while taking hormonal contraception? 
Maybe something like this?

Hey Lady! If you use hormonal birth control none of this fascinating menstrual information applies to you. Wish I could tell you what this means for your health and fitness but, sorry, that’s beyond my area of expertise.

If Diaz’s intention for this book is to empower women to better understand their bodies, then she failed when it comes to the menstrual cycle. I hope she’ll correct this big mistake in any future editions.

Food. Fashion. Blood?

January 10th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

A month ago I was musing about what it might be like to blog about fun stuff like food, fashion or travel – you know, topics not quite so “fraught” as the menstrual cycle. Sometimes it feels like just so much work sharing facts and opinions about why body literacy matters, why knowing how our cycles work and how ovulation impacts our health can lead us into meaningful, self-determined relationship with our bodies and ourselves.

But in the days leading up to Christmas, I was reminded by two young women, both of whom I’ve known since they were babies, daughters of friends, one in her late 20s, the other in her early 30s, why I do what I do.

Photo by Laura Wershler

The younger had contacted me last September, at the suggestion of her mother, with questions about switching birth control methods. She was fed up with the Pill, wanted to quit, was considering the Mirena IUD, told me about her history with ovarian cysts, irregular cycles. In a stable relationship, she hadn’t thought much about children. We talked about options. I assured her there were effective non-hormonal methods she could use, that by doing so she could assess her fertility, get her cycle functioning normally before making a decision about the Mirena. I sent her information about treatment – not involving hormonal contraceptives – for ovarian cysts; I asked a medical colleague questions on her behalf. She was thankful, emailing me that she had “some heavy thinking to do, including my actual timeline for children.”

I hoped to see her at her family’s annual Christmas party. We greeted each other briefly when I arrived, but not until the house was teeming with guests did we have the chance to talk privately amidst the holiday din. She told me she’d stopped the Pill three months before, could hardly believe how much better she felt, even though she’d yet to have a period. She thanked me, again, for validating her desire to quit the Pill. It so happened she had an appointment the next day with her family doctor; she knew what treatment she would request to help get her cycle started.

It did not go well. Her doctor, like so many I’ve heard about, was not interested in the menstrual cycle research she had done or the choices she wanted to make about her reproductive health. Quite the contrary: her doctor was hostile. It was disheartening for her, maddening to me, but not surprising.

A day later, at another holiday gathering, the other young woman stopped me in the hall to ask what I thought of the Mirena. She’d made the switch from the combined Pill (estrogen/progestin) to a progestin-only version to help with migraines. She offered that she and her partner had not yet decided about children, but she was concerned about leaving it too late. I told her the Mirena was intended as a five-year method, and if she was thinking she might want a child, it was a good time to stop hormonal contraception and assess her fertility before making a decision, either way.

I forwarded both women links to a naturopath skilled in menstrual cycle and fertility issues, and to a fertility awareness instructor who’d just announced her 2014 Eco-Contraception Program. The decision about what to do next, of course, will be theirs.

I sense both young women are searching for new, mindful connections to their bodies. Even if all I ever do is help a few such women find the support they need to make this connection, then to hell with food and fashion, I’ll keep writing about the menstrual cycle.

Give the Gift of Body Literacy

December 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Photo by Laura Wershler

This holiday season consider giving the women in your life the gift of body literacy. The books, resources and services compiled below support understanding and appreciation of our bodies.

Gifts for teenagers:

* To hold a Wondrous Vulva Puppet is to experience a loving representation of the female body. Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets are used around the world to spark conversations about our bodies and our sexuality. To quote a testimonial on the website: “The sensual curves, velvety feel and beauty of these puppets seems to disarm people in a way that opens the door to real discussion about women’s sexuality.”

* Toni Weschler, widely known for her best-selling book on fertility awareness Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has also written a book for teenagers. Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body makes the perfect gift for your daughter or younger sister, neice or cousin. This book can transform a young teenager’s experience and understanding of her body as it teaches her the practical benefits of charting her menstrual cycles. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Gifts for those who want to learn fertility awareness:



* Justisse Method: Fertility Awareness and Body Literacy A User’s Guide by Justisse founder Geraldine Matus is a helpful gift for anyone wanting to learn about fertility awareness based methods (FABM) of birth control. It is “a primer for body literacy, and a guide for instructing women how to observe, chart and interpret their menstrual cycle events.”

For someone who wants to learn fertility awareness to prevent or achieve pregnancy, or to fix menstrual problems, finding a certified practitioner is getting easier. Technology can connect women with skilled instructors who may live thousands of miles away. Check out the practitioners below online and on Facebook.

*   *    *   *   *   *

* Flowers Fertility (Colleen Flowers, Colorado): Facebook.

* Grace of the Moon (Sarah Bly, Oregon): Facebook.

* Holistic Hormonal Health (Hannah Ransom, California): Facebook.

* Justisse Healthworks for Women provides a directory of Justisse-trained Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioners (Worldwide): Facebook.

* Red Coral Fertility (Justina Thompson): Facebook

* Red Tent Sisters (Amy Sedgwick, Ontario, Canada): Facebook

I invite other certified instructors who work locally to leave their contact information in comments.

Gifts for women in midlife

* For women who are in the perimenopausal transition – which can last from six to 10 years for most women, ending one year after the final menstrual period – give the gift of information. Connect friends and family with the website of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research where they’ll find many free resources that offer explanations and treatment suggestions for the symptoms they may experience throughout this transition including night sweats, hot flushes, heavy and/or longer flow, migraines, and sore, swollen breasts.

* To those who love fiction, consider giving Estrogen’s Storm Season, a fictionalized account of eight women’s journey through perimenopause written by CeMCOR’s Scientific Director, endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior:

They are as different as women can be—yet they share the mysterious experiences of perimenopause, night sweats, flooding periods or mood swings. We follow these women as they consult Dr. Madrona, learn the surprising hormonal changes explaining their symptoms, get better or worse, and try or refuse therapies. As each woman lives through her particular challenge, we begin to see how we, too, can survive perimenopause!

Proceeds from book sales support ongoing research.

From menarche to menopause, it is never too early or too late to acquire body literacy. I invite readers to share other gift ideas that promote menstrual cycle comfort and support body literacy.

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *

Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent.  And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.

I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).

Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of  the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.

Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.

Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.

And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!

Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed. 

Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.

Used with Permission

Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view. 

Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.

Etiquette for menstruation

November 19th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Photo courtesy of sweeteningthepill.com

Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.

The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).

You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).

In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…

If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?

The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””

When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.

Why the “pullout generation” is a sex ed fail

November 13th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Questioning and quitting the pill are current hot topics, fueled in no small part by Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently released Sweetening the Pill Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Her book has drawn ample backlash, brilliantly addressed by re:Cycling blogger Elizabeth Kissling.

Adding to the media clamour was Ann Friedman’s New York Magazine online piece No Pill? No Prob. Meet the Pullout Generation which explores how and why women she knows are ditching hormones and depending on withdrawal and period tracking apps for birth control.

Black Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe, photographed by Laura Wershler
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Both writers, along with Toronto freelancer Kate Carraway, recently discussed the topic Rebelling against the pill: ‘Pulling-Out’ of conventional birth control on CBC Radio-Canada’s The Current.

Listening to Grigg-Spall, Friedman, and Carraway discuss the pill rebellion affirms that while many young women are through with hormonal birth control, their transition off the pill, etc., is not without risk-taking and pushback.

Grigg-Spall nailed the pivotal point when she said “It’s a provider issue.”

The rise of the “pullout generation” is proof that sexual health-care providers and educators, among whom I count myself, have failed on two counts:

1) We’ve failed to address a key aspect of contraceptive use: how to transition successfully between method groups, in this case from hormonal to non-hormonal methods. We’d rather present the so-called “latest and greatest” hormonal methods and say – earnestly, pleadingly – try this! The CBC panelists provided strong anecdotal evidence that more and more women are having none of it.

2) We’ve failed to adequately acknowledge and serve women who can’t, won’t or don’t want to use hormonal methods. We are NOT providing across-the-board support and programs that include easy access to diaphragms or certified training in fertility awareness based methods (FABM), either onsite or through collaborative referral strategies.

For over 25 years I’ve advocated for increased access to information, support and services for women who want to use non-hormonal methods of birth control. It’s self-evident such services must include access to qualified instruction to learn FABM that have effectiveness rates over 99%. This is not to say there isn’t a place for withdrawal as an effective back-up. Check out this confessional how-to post by fertility awareness instructor Amy Sedgewick.

As Friedman said on The Current, women are intimidated by the idea of learning fertility awareness. I believe this is mostly because mainstream sexual health-care providers have never fully educated themselves about FABM or fully committed to presenting these methods as viable options to drugs and devises. Do they think that most women can’t or don’t want to learn fertility awareness skills? That would be like thinking most girls can’t or don’t want to learn to read.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Fertility awareness, like riding a bicycle, is a life skill.”

If you can learn to swim, ski or snowboard, knit a sweater, read a balance sheet or master Adobe InDesign, you can learn to observe, chart and interpret your menstrual cycle events. We can all acquire body literacy.

Until sexual health educators and care providers develop programs to fully serve women who won’t use or want to stop using drugs and devises for birth control, we will continue failing to meet the growing “unmet need” for effective non-hormonal contraceptive methods.

The reign of hormonal birth control as the top-of-the-contraceptive-hierarchy gold standard appears to be coming to an end. The pullout generation represents just one thread in this transition. The questions is: Are sexual health educators and care providers paying attention and, if so, what are they going to do about it?

“Prescribing the pill has become ‘standard-of-care’ for being a girl”

October 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently published book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. It’s astounding to me that more than 30 years ago, before Holly was born, I was asking some of the same questions she explores in her book. I thought we’d have more answers by now, but one thing is certain: Holly’s book has prompted long-overdue discussion and debate about issues related to hormonal birth control. Below is my foreword to Sweetening the Pill.

………………..

In a letter dated March 22, 1980, I proposed to the editor of an American woman’s magazine that they consider my enclosed article: The Contraceptive Dilemma – A Subjective Appraisal of the Status of Birth Control.

I wrote:

“Recent articles (about birth control) deal almost exclusively with the basic pros, cons, and how-tos of the various contraceptives available – matter-of-fact discussions that reduce birth control to a mere pragmatic decision. If only that were the case. 

Contraception, like the sexual interaction that necessitates it, involves our emotions as much as it does the facts. Yet the subjective, personal aspect of contraception is so often ignored. In this age of scientific research we are expected to (subjugate) our emotional reactions to significant probabilities, our anger to logic. Very real fears and earnest questions are dismissed as irrelevant….”

Although today I wouldn’t use the phrase “emotional reactions,” it’s hard to believe that three decades later, the status of birth control and women’s relationship to it has not much changed. Websites, not magazines, now host information about the basic pros, cons and how-tos of available birth control methods. And it is writers like Holly, half my age, who honour women’s real fears and ask earnest questions that are still being dismissed as mostly irrelevant.

Just as my personal story with the pill – including over a year of distressing post-pill amenorrhea – set me on a course of research and advocacy, so too has Holly’s personal experience. Sweetening the Pill explores and challenges the ways in which the pill and other drug-based contraceptives damage women’s health, threaten our autonomy and thwart body literacy. What we don’t know about our bodies helps pharmaceutical companies “sell” their contraceptive drugs, and keeps us “addicted” to them.

At some point between my first attempt at non-hormonal contraceptive advocacy and Holly’s exploration of how we’ve become hooked on hormonal birth control, something disturbing transpired. Prescribing the pill, or other forms of hormonal contraception, has become, in the minds of most health-care providers, the “standard of care” for being a girl. It is all too common to subjugate a girl’s menstrual cycle to synthetic hormones that superficially “regulate,” but actually suspend the maturation of her reproductive system. And for many girls, the use of hormonal contraception continues well into their 20s, without awareness of what might be or has been sacrificed.

There are many women like Holly who are fed up with hormonal birth control. I’ve met scores of them during my 30 years involvement within the mainstream pro-choice sexual and reproductive health community, the one that prides itself on inclusion and diversity. Yet I’ve been unsuccessful in my constant advocacy for this community to accommodate a more inclusive, diverse approach to contraception, to provide acknowledgement, support and services to women who cannot or do not want to use drug- or devised-based methods. We pay lip service to the idea, but the message we convey is: “You’re on your own.”

I’ve found enthusiasm in other realms for my menstrual cycle advocacy and my belief that many women want to, and can, learn to use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently. I’ve found scientific evidence of the value of ovulation to women’s health and well-being.

I’ve read, met or worked with several of the sources included in this book. Many have devoted their careers to understanding women’s bodies and our relationships with our bodies in ways the medical mainstream typically ignores and barely comprehends. They have made contributions that help us imagine a different way of thinking about fertility, contraception and our menstrual cycles in relation to our sexual, reproductive and overall health.

Who is using menstrual cycle charting apps and why?

September 18th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Screenshot of Selene app // Photo courtesy of daringplan.com/selene

Hanging out (mostly virtually) with so many researchers at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, I find myself thinking of research topics I’m curious to see explored. Here are just two that have crossed my mind recently:

1. Who is using menstrual cycle tracking apps and why?

There are so many on the market that this period technology recently garnered it’s own story at The Cut. The story notes that Period Plus “claims more than a million users.” Kati Bicknell, co-founder of Kindara has blogged at re:Cycling , and Amy Sedgewick reviewed another new charting app, Selene, just a few weeks ago.  Now, Justisse Healthworks for Women has launched their app to support women using the Justisse fertility awareness charting method.

So why and how are women using these cycle tracking apps? For pregnancy achievement, avoidance or both? For fun?

In No Pill? No Prob. Meet the Pullout Generation , also at The Cut, Ann Friedman says that some women are quitting the pill and relying on period-tracker apps, condoms, and the pullout method for birth control.

Are others downloading the apps to learn fertility awareness or were they already charting their cycles before using an app? Are app users more or less inclined to seek out a qualified fertility awareness instructor? And how are women’s attitudes about their periods influenced by cycle tracking apps?

2. Who is quitting hormonal birth control and why?

The popularity of cycle tracking apps suggests some kind of trend away from hormonal methods, and dissatisfaction with side effects prompts many women to look for alternatives. As Friedman wrote in the “pull-out generation” piece mentioned above:

“But I know a dozen women in their late twenties and thirties who, after years of jumping from brand to brand and always feeling crazy or depressed, or after years of nagging health concerns about taking hormones, finally said ‘enough’ and told their partners to put on a condom and deal with it.”

Are there common factors that prompt women to stop using hormonal birth control (HBC)? What kind of support are they finding from health-care providers, partners, friends and family for this decision? Are their identifiable barriers to accessing information, support and services to use non-hormonal contraceptive methods? What do women consider to be their alternatives? Condoms? Cycle tracking apps? Diaphragm? Copper IUD? Fertility Awareness Based Methods? Where are they finding services? Are they finding services? What is positive about quitting HBC? What is negative about the experience?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see research papers on these topics presented at the next SMCR conference in Boston, June 2015?

Feminism, Backlash, and Sweetening The Pill

September 13th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

It’s been more than 20 years since Susan Faludi first published Backlash (with the provocative subtitle, The Undeclared War Against American Women), her thorough documentation of the ways women and feminism were under attack in the U.S. The War Against Women has been now been openly declared in American politics, and there is a backlash among women in online feminism.

I’m referring to discussions of hormonal birth control; specifically, how and with whom we can criticize the birth control pill. Before she joined the re:Cycling team, Holly Grigg-Spall wrote a guest post for us titled, Why Can’t We Criticize the Pill?  At the time, the title may have seemed a little overwrought, but now that her book criticizing the pill has reached the market and been reviewed in several online publications (including by some reviewers who refused to even read it), the question is more than apt. Lindsay Beyerstein’s review for Slate prompted some readers to start a petition asking the publisher to cease publication. Amanda Marcotte has written two posts on her blog slamming the book without reading it, and refused offers of a free copy so that she could respond accurately. Dr. Jen Gunter is also uninterested in reading it, labeling the book “that atrocious pill book” on Twitter and suspecting “a pro-life agenda”.

The criticisms of the book are many and inconsistent: (1) an assertion that Grigg-Spall claims the pill is bad because it is not ‘natural’,  (2) since the pill was bad for Grgg-Spall, no one should take it; (3) the pill is sexist and therefore dangerous; (4) the pill is anti-feminist; and furthermore, (5) Holly advances all of these claims in service of a anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-choice, pro-life, Christian right-wing agenda. That last one is particularly galling, as every time she speaks or writes about these issues, Holly prefaces her talk or mentions in her writing that she is atheist, feminist, and pro-choice. (She often also mentions that she’s British, and was raised with a very different health care system than those of us in the U.S., and thus held different assumptions about access.)

All of these criticisms are either factually incorrect, or exaggerated or deliberate misinterpretations of Holly’s actual arguments. For instance, while she does question what ‘natural’ cycles would be like if women didn’t take the pill, she does not assert that pill = unnatural = bad. Nor does she advocate banning or restricting the pill. She does locate the pill in a complex matrix of capitalist and patriarchal social structures that do not benefit women, which is not exactly the same as saying “the pill is sexist”.

As a feminist, a scholar, and as a reader of books, I’m both fascinated and frustrated by the criticism Sweetening the Pill has received. I’m appalled that reviewers would write and publish reviews completely panning a book they haven’t read, and then refuse to read it. As a feminist, I’m frustrated by apparent efforts to shut down dissent. The pill has never been more politicized in American life, and as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we cannot be so focused on preserving access that we’re willing to ignore questions of safety. Furthermore, it is not anti-feminist to disagree with one another. Feminism has a long history of proliferating and becoming more powerful by listening to dissent from within. Anyone remember the “Lavender Menace“? The emergence of intersectionality? As a commenter on one of the hack pieces eloquently put it,

The feminist critique of reproductive technology (including the pill’s discontents) are well established going back before the existence of the pill itself as debates with Sanger and colleagues. I’m sure this is widely taught in the Women’s Studies programmes you mention, it was to us even in A-level sociology.

I just don’t understand why you are pretending this is a new thing or that anyone taking these positions is a non-feminist. Are genuinely unaware of the history of your own movement or is this a crude rhetorical move against people you don’t agree with? Feminists (Seaman and Wolfson) provided critical testimony in the 1970 Senate Hearings, this is not some sort of obscure or secret fact, Wolfson’s outburst as to the constitution of the hearings and why drug companies were better represented than women is surely famous?

It seems to be the case you want to retro-actively kick Barbara Seaman out of feminism. You know, the woman that Gloria Steinem said was the prophet of the women’s health movement… with respect I don’t think you have the power and you don’t have an argument.

Feminism has always supported counter-intuitive critiques given that problems are multi-valenced. While Sanger held that reproductive control was an essential pre-condition of liberation, “who controls the control”, why and how are far more provocative questions.

Agree or disagree with Sweetening the Pill, or any other book, but read it for yourself, and form an opinion based on what the book actually says — not what a reviewer says or a 140-character criticism on Twitter suspects it might say. And think very carefully, and perhaps read it again, before you decide that it’s not feminism just because it doesn’t match exactly your feminism.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.