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.

1 comment:

  1. Just a side note. I too went to an all female college, and whether or not other females were on the pill, everybody always ended up on my schedule. It happened again with my law school roommates, and in retrospect, with my sister and mother. Leonard Schlain (spelling) has an interesting book about how women's sexuality and the need for iron has helped shaped society, and one small section of the book talks about shared periods in a monkey or ape relative as a "male-monogamy inducer" since all the female monkeys shared the cycle of the alpha female. It does happen, and I do tend to be the "mother hen", so I found the idea of being Head Monkey hilarious. If you haven't read the book, I think it's called Sex, Time, and Power or something similar, it's an interesting read that offers interesting takes on some of the ideas you have put out here.