A few weeks ago, I overheard an interesting—and somewhat disturbing—conversation about birth control. I wasn’t eavesdropping, I promise. This was one of those epic, volcano-decibel cell phone calls easily heard by everyone, including deaf people in earmuffs, within a five-mile radius. (The mystery of why most of humanity, myself included, feels the need to yell like Yosemite Sam while speaking on a cell phone shall be left for another day.)
In this case, ground zero was outside my doctor’s office, and the yeller in question was a teenage girl, locked into a heated debate with her mom. Here’s the gist: The girl was on a form of birth control that allowed her to never get a period—or so her doctor told her—and she was pretty pumped about this fact. Her mom, meanwhile, was freaking out, arguing that this might be bad for her daughter’s “health” or “future.” In response, the girl rolled her eyes back so far they hit her brain stem and huffed out the following: “Mom! If a DOCTOR told me it’s OK, it’s OK!”
Etiquette question: If someone conducts a phone call that is so loud that you can hear every detail, is it rude to feel that you are part of the conversation? Because I was very, very tempted to tell this girl that she might want to listen to her mother. Thanks to my repressed upbringing in the placid fields of the American Middle West, I didn’t, but the conversation haunted me all the way home. Why, I wondered, is some doctor pushing such an extensive hormonal birth control regimen on a young teenage girl?
Just Unnaturally Hop Your Body Up on Drugs
“Yeah, whatever, lady,” I can hear many of you thinking. “Menstruation is for cave people!” Well, congratulations: You will be happy to know that Planned Parenthood—and much of the rest of Planet Earth—agrees with you. Behold the following tweet, which ran during one of the most important television programming events of the past year:
Not going to lie to you: I laughed out loud when I hit that hashtag. I love Shark Week! It’s so terrible and mawkish and somehow yet so glorious! Unfortunately, the philosophy behind that tweet, when you really think about it, might be shadier than a bull shark suddenly migrating to fresh water (and I know this terrifying scenario can actually occur from my time spent watching you-know-what).
“Hey ladies!” Planned Parenthood seems to say. “We can easily banish all the baggage of your female anatomy—with drugs! All fun! No consequences! Science-approved!” In some senses, this is accurate. The “periods” women get on birth control pills, after all, aren’t real periods: They’re engineered using placebo pills, a system schemed up 50 years ago to make the then-new, then-foreign birth control process seem more “natural.” Because of this, many scientists and doctors now insist that banishing the fake period is, well, no biggie. Shazam! Take a pill, you’re like a man!
Here’s the bad news: It’s not always that easy. Contrary to what doctors across the country imply to their patients—and believe me, I’ve seen doctors in three different states pushing birth control like those grinning, hipster-mustachioed, pill-bowl-holding gatekeepers who hover outside of raves—birth control is not candy.
Side Effects Can Take Over Your Life
There are pills, for instance, that can make you a) weepy b) anxious c) psycho d) weepy, anxious, and psycho, which is a total man-catcher, or e) unable to cope with going to someplace like the U.S. Post Office without bursting into extravagant, wildly inappropriate sobs. And yes, a trip to the U.S. Post Office can be a bit of a soul-crusher, but still. (As an aside, men, if any woman in your life is suddenly and mysteriously acting like Hunter S. Thompson on a bender, it might just be the hormone-manipulating, mind-bending pharmaceutical she’s on.)
One friend of mine recently became depressed while taking oral contraceptives. A West Coast friend, who took the now widely-questioned “miracle pill” Yaz—as of March 2014, Bayer had settled up to $1.7 billion in lawsuits surrounding the pill, its marketing, and its potential link to strokes, blood clots, and heart disorders—became constantly lightheaded and suffered garbled speech, chest pain, numbness in her arm, and shortness of breath. A new Kaiser Permanente study, meanwhile, shows a potential link between oral contraceptives and multiple sclerosis.
Other birth control side effects are subtle: One friend recently told me about “the smell thing,” which is reportedly quite common. After stopping oral contraceptives, which she was taking when she met her husband, “his natural body scent turns me off. It was masked before.” Perhaps “the smell thing” plays a role in another widely-reported and rather ironic birth control side effect: the lack of interest in sex at all.
Let’s Get Some Some Perspective and Balance
This isn’t to say birth control is a bad thing. It’s often pretty great. There’s no doubt birth control has liberated women in unbelievable ways, and many women use it with no ill physical effects. After I polled my Facebook friends on the topic, half of the respondents reported strange or bad birth control experiences, causing them to bounce to a different method or, in a few cases, dump the hormones and opt for natural family planning. The other half basically told me I’d be lucky to pry their Mirena IUDs—and their consequence-free date nights—out of their cold, dead hands.
But in our burgeoning “pop a pill, change your life” culture, it seems at least a sliver of skepticism is in order. In his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here,” Evgeny Morosov outlines the rise of “technological solutionism,” a philosophy focused on erasing every problem, imperfection, and speed bump in modern life—sometimes to ill, unexpected effects. In the same way, it seems, we’ve come to look at birth control through the narrow lens of biological solutionism, preaching mastery over the body while ignoring potential and serious psychological, physical, and social consequences.
Among these social consequences is a relatively new idea that is increasingly taken for granted: Sex, in the end, is meaningless. It is a purely physical act we do for ourselves and for fun. Love doesn’t need to be involved. Neither does caution or commitment. Starting a family and launching a new life is certainly not involved—not if we can help it, anyway.
In an interesting way, recent calls for over-the-counter birth control might help to fight these trends. When you don’t have a doctor blithely giving you a pill pack and assuring you that “everything is OK,” you tend to research brands. You tend to read those long, boring warning labels. You might even start to think of alternatives beyond bumping from pill to ring to IUD.
For too many doctors around the country, the gospel of magical hormones—and of consequence-free biological solutionism—continues to thrive, making them overzealous evangelists for sometimes-questionable pharmaceutical “solutions.” Putting control and accountability back in the hands of individual women might offer a saner approach.