Friday, January 22, 2010


The BBC aired a documentary in the Horizon series entitled Pill Poppers last week. The entire thing is available here on YouTube:

Pill Poppers

Although it only briefly discussed the contraceptive pill, what was said about our relationship to pills in general and the changing motivations of the pill-making companies was very pertinent. The programme starts off with different people sitting down on a couch and presenting the medicines they take on the table in front of them. This was immediately interesting to me as I do think women have a complex relationship with the birth control pill, and to sort of personalize drugs in this way, and show what a significant role they play in people's lives really emphasizes that idea. The documentary went as far as to say that, 'Pills define who we are.' You might recall I wrote a post about the similarities between taking the birth control pill and being a smoker a while back. I said how women who take the birth control pill don't consider themselves pill-takers, not like someone who smokes might these days consider themselves a smoker, and that this shows a lack of awareness of the pill as a drug and a lack of seriousness in its prescription and usage.

One woman had her birth control pills in front of her on the table and began discussing why she took them and one of her comments was, 'I read the list of side effects in the leaflet and I had them all.' I guess, firstly, it was different to see the birth control pill discussed alongside painkillers, anti-depressants and drugs to stop you having a heart attack. Secondly, it was interesting to consider pills as part of a person's personality and lifestyle. I have been thinking a lot more about the pill and addiction lately, and I suppose one of the definitions of an addiction would be if the substance you couldn't stop taking was effecting you, your character, responses or outlook. If you were taking the substance for so long it became inextricably linked to who you are.

Now, the pill can actually change your personality in that it can cause severe mood changes, anxiety and depression, and change how you see other people, events, the world around you. So there's a definite link. But taking the pill, and accepting the pill, gives you a certain outlook on your body, self and your place in society. It does come to define who you are as a woman, as a young woman. It imposes the definitions of femininity on to you, as well as restricting your understanding of femininity. If you take the pill and happily shut down your ovaries and uterus, your natural monthly cycle you are as a by product of this action accepting certain ideas about women and their capabilities and their positioning. I've said before that taking the pill, if looked at in a historical context, appears like a rejection of femininity, or femaleness.

I dislike any suggestion that women are somehow masochistic, and I can see how that might seem part of an addiction theory, but just as with plastic surgery, or Botox, or waxing, women do things that hurt them all the time, not because they particularly want to, but not also because they are passive victims of other people's desires. It's more that we live in an environment that requires these things, and as living human beings we are responsive to that environment. Like a plant photosynthesising perhaps. It's socially constructed, but in the same way a bank is understood to be a bank and a school a school. It's ingrained. And because it is so entwined in history and culture, we feel a certain comfort in the ritual-like aspect. I suppose you could see taking the pill every day as ritualistic. Every time you pop one in your mouth it's reaffirming a whole mess of ideas about women which we have all internalised.

The documentary also talked briefly about the possibility of a male contraceptive pill. One of the doctors researching into this is interviewed and he explains how they need to 'put the testes to sleep' to stop sperm production. The narrator of the programme notes that this will be 'tinkering at the heart of what makes a man a man.'

Most interestingly, the doctor argues that people are wary of this, and that if the female birth control pill was developed and invented today from scratch, it would not be welcomed. Odd, in a way, considering, every day the pill is presented anew to young women and they keep taking it, in new and modern forms of reinvention - the present day pill is not the same as the one launched in 1960. Made me recall that statement a doctor made in the press about hormone replacement therapy, that it didn't have a place 'in modern medicine.' Also, the push is now for the not so much new as rebranded injection, implant and hormonal IUS and these are being presented to women as the latest thing in contraception.

I think the male pill still hasn't arrived because the pharmaceutical companies are not sure there's a market for it. They think men won't accept the side effects, which are likely to include lowered libido. There have been scare stories in the media about the pill - in the late 1960s when the high level of estrogen was causing blood clots and strokes, and now and then throughout the last few decades, and despite all this women keep taking it. Yes, most of these scare stories are underpinned with a statement that the pill is 'the most researched and safest medication on the market' - an assertion full of holes. The claim made by the doctor in the documentary does suggest that a big part of the pill's allure is in its cultural mythology and social integration.

The documentary narrator then goes on to say, 'A man without sperm. No more radical than what millions of women endure.' This is great to hear, and actually most of what is said previously about the potential male contraceptive pill is with this statement linked to what women undergo taking the female pill. Instead of emasculation, women are subject to de-feminisation. But whereas emasculation seems like such a potent word, full of implications, the opposite for women doesn't hold as much concern. One of the points made is that for a man to remain physically a man they would need to add sex hormones after they've taken away their production by the testes, in order for men to still look like men. Women on the pill of course still appear as women - in fact the effect of lowering testosterone levels arguably makes women closer to the social feminine ideal. That women still look womanly does play a part in the pushing of the pill. That they don't necessarily feel womanly, feminine, or sexual, is what we've been discussing here. That this side of the pill has not been considered in the last 60 years is illustrative of deliberate ignorance.

The doctor in the documentary suggests that if the male pill was released, and more importantly marketed well, it could bring about a second Sexual Revolution such as is understood to have happened in the 1960s. I have written before about how the supposed sexual revolution was not down to the pill alone, but a combination of economic and social factors. I had a man, David, comment on a previous post with his theory of what would happen if the male pill was released. Much of his comment was made up of disgustingly misogynistic remarks stating that the pill allowed women to use sex as a 'reward' and therefore manipulate men with this power (although I have to say, David may not have realized, this suggestion proposes that men are basically dogs, or toddler-like in their mentality, which makes me wonder about their supposed 'right' to rule over women). There is much wrong, in logic and moral terms, with David's statements - he believes rape victims get an easy time in court and are not required to have 'hard evidence' - he also believes the male sex drive to be 'a powerful force' which he doesn't seem to realise will be entirely quashed by the male pill (possibly the real source of this new 'freedom' for men David hankers after will be freedom from their tyrannical sex drive, if they so want it, and the ability to think about other subjects than sex, if they so want to) - but he is quite adamant about their being a revolution coming. Unfortunately for us David believes this revolution will bring about the subjugation of women 'as exploited work units with no rights' - a conclusion he puts down to, in part, the rising levels of unemployment for young men.

I had been hoping the male pill would bring about a reappraisal of the female pill and general enlightenment as to the inhumanity of having any person, male or female, shut down their hormone cycle. I was also hoping that a backlash against the pill would work out well for women, but have expressed concerns that with the headlines shouting that more women are in the workplace than ever before, we are heading for some kind of chastisement for all our power-hungry doings. David is hopefully representative of a minority, but he does show how there are forces that will always ensure women are understood to be bringing about the downfall of civilisation. He is the extreme but his ideas are present, in diluted form, in the mainstream. I think Freud wrote about how female sexuality had to be controlled for civilisation to develop. Whether it's the 'mad feminists' or poor Britney Spears, we don't win, and we do need to brace ourselves for something of a bumpy ride if we want to get society to reassess medicating millions of us.

The documentary ended talking about a drug that has been developed that can be given to men over 50 as a preventative to heart disease and heart attacks. Here the programme proposed the direction in which the pharmaceutical industry is working. The drive is to create drugs that don't treat illnesses, but treat risk factors. One of the doctor's interviewed expressed concerns about how 'A drug company's dream would be a pill not designed for sick people, but for everyone. A pill that's not good for you, but good for everybody, and you are a part of everybody.' Hmm. I don't think this is a recent development in the industry. The birth control pill does not treat an illness, it does in fact treat what is seen as a 'risk factor' - a woman's fertility is a risk factor to pregnancy it could be said, and menstruation is often reported as a risk factor to many health problems - the pill isn't good for an individual woman, it is promoted as being good for everybody - with no account of each woman's delicate natural system taken into account and complete emphasis on the pill's use for population control. And population control is supposed to be good for the health of all, so an individual woman is an easy sacrifice in the equation. The last scenes of the documentary were supposed to express a foreboding sense of the future, but we are already experiencing exactly what we are supposed to be fearing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wake up

Sleep Challenge - Glamour

Sleep Challenge - Huffington Post

Cindi Lieve of Glamour magazine and Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post have this week launched the Sleep Challenge. They're saying that as women are far more sleep-deprived than men, that sleep has become a 'feminist issue' and needs dealing with via an en masse New Year's Resolution for all women to sleep a full eight hours a day. Reading their introductory pieces to this idea, I was struck firstly by how this reaction from two powerful women has come out of the build up over the last six months or so of articles about sleep deprivation which I had noted and wondered about, and secondly how the language they use to describe the effect of sleep deprivation on individual women, and then consequently on women as a group, is very similar to the sort of thing I have been saying here about the impact of the birth control pill. See, for example, the following statements:

"A nation of sleepy women is even less capable of greatness. Consider the fact that sleep deprivation is a strategy many cults are fond of: They force prospective members to stay awake for extended periods, up for all hours because doing so physically alters their subjects' decision-making ability and makes them more open to persuasion. Ladies, the choice is ours. Do we want to be empowered women taking charge of our lives -- or do we want to be cult members, dragging ourselves around like zombies and going along with everyone else's crummy ideas?"

"Women have achieved so much already. Think what we can do if we're not tired!"

The issue is couched as such: our culture of productivity and competition in the workplace has eroded our natural sleep cycles - which should be, according to the experts, between seven and eight hours in length a day. Women feel the need to prove themselves more so than men, and therefore work longer hours, work at home and take on more tasks. They also often have to take care of the larger part of the domestic duties - cleaning the house, as well as putting in the most effort with their children. Essentially in order to take on the challenge of their acceptance by men, the potential for equal status and success, women have sacrificed their sleep cycles. All sounding rather familiar right?

I have actually previously made comparisons between the natural ovulation cycle and the sleep cycle. The authors of 'The Pill: Are You Sure It's For You?' have spoken to me about, and written about, the growing interest in maintaining the healthy sleep cycle against the demands of life and society and how this connects to the also growing interest in maintaining the healthy ovulation cycle and ditching hormonal contraceptives. Any interest in how women's bodies work and how the disruption of these workings could cause problems will be helpful in opening up discussion about the Pill. Sleep is, of course, a less contentious issue in some ways. But the way this Sleep Challenge is being addressed is interesting - it is argued that the more women sleep the more they can achieve within the hours they are awake, and the better off we all be for it, as then we could contribute more, be more inventive and creative and progress society as a whole.

Without being totally direct, these two women are advocating some drastic shifts in how our lives are structured - changes not only in how jobs and work patterns are organised, but also how family and home life is shared. Really, for eight hours a night to be possible, there needs to be a better balance of responsibilities between men and women so that women are not doing their job and then coming home to take up the entirety of their second job, looking after the house and the children. If women are taking themselves off to bed, regardless of their left-over duties, the protests of their husbands and children or the needs of their job, it is a kind of pacifist protest. There's something in there similar to how upper class Victorian women when faced with their social duties, chores and other boring entertainments would become ill and need bed rest for months, years even. Barbara Ehrenreich, amongst others, has spoken of the bed rest movement of that era as not only symptomatic of women's oppression, but also an act of rebellion against the structure and substance of their lives.

Of course, the Sleep Challenge is only going to speak to women who, like the editors of these publications, are generally well-off, have job security and have supportive husbands, relatives - or perhaps no children at all and a cleaner who comes in twice a week. Women who are single mothers working up to three jobs - I'm certainly not creating this character for dramatic effect as I see and speak with such women every day - are not depriving themselves of sleep by staying up speaking with the features editor about next month's fashion shoot focusing on transparents, or checking their Blackberries for the latest news. They are up working at an all-night diner, or cleaning offices first thing in the morning, or having worked for twelve hours that day trying to have a little social life and fun by meeting their friends. I'm not saying that editors of magazines shouldn't be getting sleep, or that what they are doing when they are not sleeping at night is unimportant, or that they shouldn't indeed be encouraging women to sleep more, if possible. They do make reference to a wider change that is needed here, to the suffering of women as a whole under the current social conditions. And I know this is America where even if you are a single mother working three jobs you are supposed to be constantly 'aspiring' (rather than just plain hoping) to one day have a cleaner and a nanny and a nice editing job. I am absolutely glad this issue is being discussed, as I say, it can only help with my own birth control pill challenge, I just have to bring this stuff up because, well, they aren't.

Also, we're not just talking single mothers with three jobs, we are in the middle of a recession here in which three jobs are being made one and palmed off on one young woman after another for little pay in order to save the company money. If you want to keep your job, there's a good chance you do need to stay late, come in early and work at home, as if you don't there'll always be someone else who will instead. I have worked in media jobs, and media jobs alone, and I have always felt the pressure to do above and beyond my daily eight hours as I am well aware of the long line of people willing to take my place for less money. And when I've worked for free, that's when I have particularly felt the pressure to stay on and work as hard as physically possible to please - in one position under the same roof as Glamour magazine I lost two stone doing just that. I am currently fitting in writing this blog around a tight schedule of minimum wage work, and in fact I should really be at that minimum wage job right now because I do need the money, but am bargaining for some time to achieve something more significant to me.

I am intrigued by the health problems set out as caused by sleep deprivation and started doing some research into the background of these problems, as in what was happening in the body when it isn't getting enough rest that makes you sick. I discovered there's a whole lot going on to do with hormone production disruption. An article here discusses the effect on hormones and metabolism, which are two of the main areas of impact of the birth control pill also:

This is a whole other medical, scientific kettle of fish, but this article at least sums up the connections, and shows that when bells started ringing with this Sleep Challenge, they were right to - there are many comparisons to the effect the Pill has on our bodies. I guess I don't need to wade into the science to realise the body has cycles that keep everything working at its optimum level and when these are disrupted continuously over long periods of time the body will suffer. I love to see how every third point made in the Sleep Challenge blogs is about how getting more sleep can make you more attractive. As in, you eat less junk, you will lose more weight, you will look better. They do mention interior health benefits, but the impact of these interior health benefits on your skin and body seems to be more discussed than anything. I don't mean to be harsh here, it's just funny to see that, and as someone who reads women's magazines, I get why they're doing that and I kind of buy it, too.

It's been four months since I came off the Pill now, and I honestly feel great. I don't necessarily look that hot though, as I have mentioned before it feels a little like being a teenager again with bad skin and hair and at this point I am wondering if it will settle down sometime soon. I don't want to eat as much however, and my hypoglaecemic-like blood sugar drops have evened out helping me to eat healthier. Seeing as I have not been de-toxing myself in a way that would be recommended when coming off a drug after ten years - I'm still drinking alcohol, eating junk and not exercising enough - I am pleased to see how I have progressed. And I think by changing very little in my life, apart from stopping the Pill, I have been able to see how the Pill was really, truly effecting me. If I feel better in ways now, I can be pretty certain it is because I am not on the Pill.

I have argued here that the Pill impairs women's judgement, decision-making, concentration, creativity, energy and so on, just as Arianna argues about sleep deprivation. I have also explained my thoughts on how the Pill being taken by many women, for decades could be keeping us down - letting us go along with other people's 'crummy ideas' because we are too weakened by it's insidious effect on our bodies to have the strength to do anything else. I have suggested that the Pill was taken on enthusiastically as a sacrifice that would allow us to be fully indoctrinated into the man's workplace under the man-made rules. Also, I've written about how suppressing our ovulation cycles could be holding us back, that the Pill is a form of oppression we have gleefully accepted in a cruel bargain. So, yes, lots of correlations here.

Arianna doesn't go as far as having a sleep deprivation conspiracy, or suggesting that the problem is the result of anything other than the pressure on women to out-work men and prove themselves and their equal status. Basically, she doesn't say, as I might have been inclined to, that a sleep deprived people are far easier to govern than a wide-awake people, and far easier to manipulate, scare and goad. Forget about what they do in cults and for torture techniques, sleep deprivation could be seen as a useful tool for keeping us all in check in our day to day lives. An awake woman might be more creative, productive, inventive and critical, but is that what the economy really needs? In one way yes, in a ton of other ways, absolutely not.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Balancing act

Happy New Year - according to the Back Up Your Birth Control campaign, the night of New Year's Eve is renowned as a time of contraceptive mistakes, broken condoms and missed pills. Or 'birth control oops' as they like to call it. The campaign encouraged young women to send their friends a 'funny morning after message' through their web page, reminding them of the availability of the emergency contraceptive pill in case they had indeed had a birth control oops.

The title of this project is Don't Drop The Ball, which I am assuming is a reference to the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve, but comes across as some sort of an affront. Like, once women have had their fun, they mustn't forget it is totally their responsibility to make sure that no baby comes of it all. It kind of suggests in a patronising way that a woman can fail a man by not taking a massive dose of synthetic hormones to prevent her body getting pregnant. Like if she did get pregnant, it would be all her fault for being irresponsible.

It even seems to suggest young women should be taking the emergency contraceptive pill after casual sex even if they are on the birth control pill or used a condom, therefore implying that they were probably too drunk to remember if they did take their pill or use a condom and generally not to be trusted. Rather brilliant marketing on the part of the makers of emergency contraceptive pills. We have been convinced we need to use the pill to 'back up' perfectly safe condoms and now we need to use the emergency pill to 'back up' the every day pill and the condoms.

It's so weird to see this kind of fun, self-consciously stylised advert for a powerful medication with the message that young women should be taking this drug on the prompting of a 'funny' text from a friend. Women's bodies are so frequently treated with such a casual, flippant attitude.

The implication is that young women really can not be trusted to not get pregnant, that they can not be trusted with their dangerous, fertile bodies. There is no consideration of the actual workings of a woman's body, and the probability that she will get pregnant that particular night, because she will be fertile and able to get pregnant that night. This essentially scare-mongering, paranoia-inducing campaign is based on the false information that is constantly and consistently promoted to keep women in check, and keep us taking expensive medications - falsities like women are constantly ready and waiting for pregnancy, that their hormone levels don't change throughout the month, that there isn't an ovulation point directly linked to fertility - in all, basically, that women either get pregnant or have periods and it's all very simple, basic stuff.

The Guardian newspaper did a photo series recently on the most talked about people of the year or something, and under a picture of Britney Spears was the comment, 'Spears became central to one of the decade’s major narratives: the depiction of young women as insensible, incompetent, insatiable, intoxicated.' For a while now I've wanted to write an article, a blog, something on the representation of young, famous women in the media. I hadn't thought the topic might link in with my writing on the birth control pill, but I guess it does.

All four of there adjectives back up most of the discussion of the birth control pill, and even more so the long acting methods of contraception like the injection and implant - it's not discussed openly for the most part, but it is definitely implied that the control of women's bodies must be in the hands of doctors and drugs, otherwise they will likely cause the downfall of civilisation with their irresponsible, baby-making ways.

The NHS campaign I spoke of in the last post, the one to get the pill given to women over-the-counter at pharmacies, definitely suggested that in missing pills, not using condoms and asking for emergency contraception women were showing themselves to be out of control and suspicious. They say it's about choosing the right contraceptive method for your 'lifestyle' - but we all know what a cover-up the word 'lifestyle' can be, and how it can be used condescendingly to suggest distaste at how someone lives their life. If you have a lifestyle in which you can't remember to take a pill every day then you will be seen as a loose woman, a slut and persuaded to get a shot once every three months instead that will not only wipe out your fertility but also act as a chemical castrator and stop you wanting sex ever, at all.

I recently finished Susan Rako's No More Periods: The Risks Of Menstrual Suppression in which she questions the oft repeated assumption that there is no good medical reason for menstruation. Dr Rako argues that aside from those women who are epileptic or have migraines related to their monthly cycle, and those who suffer from severe endometriosis, the birth control pill is detrimental to your health. She asserts very persuasively and with reference to tons of research that a woman's natural cycle ensures her blood pressure is lowered for half the month, and that she loses excess iron stored in the body which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes considerably. Excess iron is only secreted through menstruation which does not occur when women take the pill, thus putting them in danger of cardio-vascular problems. Cervical cancer is also mentioned, with Dr Rako arguing that the pill is a co-carcinogen with the HPV virus in causing this. According to her studies women are at higher risk of the cancer developing when taking the pill, plus they are less likely to use barrier methods and protect themselves from getting the virus.

Most interestingly, Dr Rako cites the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki which assured the interests of the individual be put before those of society. She cites this before discussing the preliminary experimentation that formed the discovery of the contraceptive effects of the Depo Provera injection. Pertinently she remarks on studies that show that the GPs of upper income patients show far more negative attitudes towards the injection than those serving lower income women. In my last post I discussed the piloting of the NHS scheme, with prescription-less pills and pushing of the injection, in the poorer areas of London.

Dr Rako also makes the interesting statement that there is no such thing as 'side effects' and all the effects of a drug on the person taking that drug are simply its effects. Some of the major uses of some major drugs were only developed because of the discovery of a 'side effect' in trials for another use. If we stop calling the effects of the birth control pill on women's bodies 'side effects' a much brighter light is thrown on the discussion.

A recent press release from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was entitled 'Hormonal Contraceptives Offer Benefits Beyond Pregnancy Prevention.' Women are often sold the birth control pill on the basis of its acne-clearing, period-stopping abilities and yet when we want to discuss the negative effects, it is pregnancy prevention that is said to trump any and all complaints. The Yasmin advertising campaign goes under the banner 'Beyond Birth Control' and yet when the knock-on effects of its unique make-up came under scrutiny it was back to being just plain birth control.