Fraternising with contraception: why we need to be bloody honest
I can still picture the classroom I was sat in during my very first sex education lesson. Boys were taken into a different classroom while a nurse spoke to the girls on the practicality of periods.
I remember wondering, even at 11 years old, why it was necessary for boys to be removed from the room whilst periods were being discussed. What ensued from this gendered separation were whispers between the girls at school, ‘have you started yet?’ ‘I thought I started but I haven’t’, ‘she’s weird because she’s the only one in our year who hasn’t started yet’, ‘ew, that’s gross, you’ve already started your period.’ These gendered lines within education also inevitably influenced male responses to female emotion. Such responses tended to follow along the lines of ‘calm down, are you on your period?’ ‘ha, she must be on her period!’, ‘oooh, it’s someone’s time of the month!’ There was a stigma. And, to some degree, even now I’m in my early twenties, I still feel that the issue of periods and the effects of contraception are stigmatised. It’s difficult to blame boys in their childhood for making such comments, when they were never educated fully on the effects of the menstrual cycle. But, more to the point, neither were girls.
So how do we resolve the issues that periods cause for us women without the necessary conversation? ‘cause jeez, there’s a lot. From acne to mood swings, pain to irregular bleeding, headaches to appetite changes: we’re affected for a huge chunk of our time on this planet. I’ve always felt that the most beneficial way of dealing with this and making the best choices is to open a dialogue, but if we still can’t talk about periods as freely as we should be able to, then how can we be at the ultimate level of understanding of what’s best to do with our bodies? If ITV never air a conversation between the girls on Love Island about periods, when we all know one of them would’ve had to ask for a sanitary product at least once or another would’ve needed pain relief, then why should any of us talk, write, or shout from the rooftops about it? We should be able to make the most informed of choices yet, because of this stigma, so many of us struggle to find what suits us best with the least consequences to our health.
We got options
Contraceptive methods are usually the main solution provided to suppress the side effects of periods. I think it is of the utmost importance that there is an open conversation within educational, social, and medical environments in which the oscillation between which side effects are worth sacrificing over others is squashed, and young women are making wholly certain decisions on what they are choosing for their bodies. It is universal and fact that contraceptive methods have provided women with a relief of being able to practice safe sex and manage debilitating side effects of periods but this doesn’t mean all of them are perfect.
If you had asked me when I was sixteen if I would choose to have an IUD fitted, I would have recoiled with disgust. But why is this? The thought of having a foreign object pushed through my cervix made me feel uncomfortable, and honestly, outraged. But I can safely say that now, at 25, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s true that as human beings, we are usually scared of what we don’t understand and I wasn’t alone in my fear of my chosen method of contraception.
When the pill was first introduced, it created a lucrative excitement. Young women today aren’t able to relate to the hell of the perpetual anxiety that women of our great grandparents’ generation must have been through before they had the option to have sex without risk of pregnancy and take control of the side effects of periods. Hell enough, indeed, that it seeps straight out of history books.
But, are we allowed now, with all the information that we have at our fingertips, to perhaps challenge, or even consider, the effects of such relief?
Surely, it cannot be that case that because we, as women, have been ‘privileged’ in such an option that we can’t reject it?
The pill is not the only option. And whilst it works for many, the negative side effects are often ignored or dismissed.
The pill is a known cause of depression and a worryingly risk-increaser of cancer. Yet, we are not necessarily warned of this as much as we should be. The pill is cheap to produce, it’s easy to take, and it’s used universally. But, is our agency and power not in our choice? We must remember that we have a choice and there should no longer be a battle of wits between female empowerment and health costs.
In conversations with my friends I’m often slightly alarmed at the way in which we all ignore the potential risks of something we are putting into our bodies, perhaps simply because we are now taking the widely available choice for granted, or even just because we feel lucky to have it.
There’s always an argument to say that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But when we’re suffering in different ways from the side effects of a pill that is supposed to give us safety, maybe we need to talk more about what we’re doing to our bodies.
The pill isn’t the only hormonal form of contraception that comes with worrying side effects; the injection, implant and mini-pill can all cause some pretty stressful changes. Due to a family history of breast cancer, I am unable to take the combined pill due to the inclusion of oestrogen. At 17, in a flurry of flippancy and frustration, I tried the hormonal injection without really learning about it. I have not met one woman in my early adult life that has tried this method without experiencing (at the least) severe and rapid weight gain and painful headaches. These side effects are arguably ‘superficial’, but I think it needs to be acknowledged that there are an extremely high number of teenage girls who use this form of contraception. When this is the case, it should also be acknowledged how damaging it can be for a woman of that age to go through such intense physical change.
It was in these conversations, and those I had with friends who were using the combined pill, that I realised I was not alone in my experience of the varying side effects of hormonal contraceptive methods. I’m so glad I had those conversations and as conversation is changing, so is society; we need to keep moving with it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s fix it.
Back to basics
It took multiple doctors visits and discussions with nurses and other women who had chosen an IUD for me to make the decision I did.
I’m not saying that this method hasn’t come without its own issues, of course it has. At times, I’ve dealt with horrendous pain and worried that any slight issue may be directly related to the coil. I’ve often felt that I’m one bad period away from removing my womb. But, then I remember that I’m a badass woman and that this beautiful thing we call nature is reminding me of that. The good that it has brought to my life far outweighs the bad. If I develop cancer one day, I’ll at the very least know I did everything I could to prevent it. My risk of developing a blood clot is minimal. When I’m sad, I know I’m sad and it’s not the artificial effects of a hormonal imbalance.
The best advice I could give from my own experience is to take things back to the basics. Can this method stop me from getting pregnant? Yes. Can this method still give me a natural period every month? Yes. Do I have to worry about forgetting to take it? No. Do I have to worry about hormonal imbalance affecting my mood? No. And, even better, it lasts ten years. The coil works for me and I am by no means saying it will for everyone. But, what I am saying is that I came to this decision through a lot of discussion, research, and challenge.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s keep a dialogue open so that whatever gender, we can discuss these effects properly and help each other make more informed choices. There’s so much information widely available now and so many incentives for young women, and men, to be more open about an issue that affects us all.
Author Jessica Woods