Sunday, May 23, 2010

Taking ownership

'The Pill helped me to own my identity as a woman and be in control of my life, my body and my future.'

In the final chapter of Elaine Tyler May's book America and The Pill she quotes a few of the women who got in contact with her through an online call-out for birth control stories. This statement struck me in particular, although they are all pretty fascinating. The woman speaking sees complexities in her taking the Pill, it is not just about preventing pregnancy. She understands that the Pill has ties to her female-ness, her gender. If you think I'm looking too deeply, imagine someone saying something similar about, say, a painkiller that they have to take three times a week, or an asthma inhaler they use every day.

It's a very grand description for a pill that is promoted as inconsequential, a drug that is protected from criticism, doled out as casually as if it were no different to chewable vitamins for children. In fact, the health 'benefits' of the Pill are exaggerated to such an extent - recall the headlines a few months back which stated, completely falsely as well as absurdly, that women on the Pill were 'less likely to die' - that although this is a drug given to healthy women, it is generally believed - again, quite absurdly, if we think about it - that taking this drug makes women healthier, and does not have any detrimental effects on her well-being. Much like vitamin supplements. It is generally believed the Pill shuts down organs as inconsequential as the tonsils. So then why would a woman taking the Pill believe it had anything to do with her 'identity'? Another woman quoted in the chapter states:

'It's a non-issue - like brushing my teeth.'

Teeth-brushing though, even, is something we are taught to do before we even know why we should do it, why it has any good consequence in our life. It is a ritual before it is a conscious action. We brush our teeth before we want to brush our teeth. In the US, there's a whole industry around teeth brushing, and some of the products that are part of that industry - the peroxide whitening paste for example - are not only more than is necessary to get teeth clean, but additions to the ritual that probably do more harm than good. Then think about the fluoride that is put in the water system to keep people's teeth plaque free. Interesting. Anyway, so the first statement connects the Pill with a woman's identity. This reminded me of how science was seen to be helping housewives in the 1950s with the introduction of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and so on.The economy, growing consumer-centric, was helping women whilst shaping what it was to be a woman. Not just responding to women's needs but suggesting their needs in order to satisfy them.

I mean, that's what consumerism is about, right? After people have what they need, then needs are created by the marketing from the makers of things to get people to feel like without having this or that item the invented need is not met. Washing machines made women's lives easier, but consumerism then created better washing machines, additions to washing machines, as well as generating an anxiety about cleanliness, the necessity for more and more outfits - so the machine made life easier in one way, but the industry around it, the concept around it almost, made life harder in a whole lot of other ways. The Pill was a new invention created for a need women expressed, but then the concept built around that invention produced other needs, anxieties that linked in and made sure that even when the original need was no longer as definite, the invention was still popular and wanted.

We create our identity, which is a concept of our self in a way, through buying stuff - what we wear, what music we own, what films we watch, what we eat, where we live, what car we own - this all feeds into the identity. At some point buying stuff was more so just buying stuff, before it became representative of who you are. We have got to a point where how we represent our selves is more important than who we are, it is who we are. We are expert self-marketers. We sell our 'selves' through Facebook. Our lives are more exterior than interior. Life has become performance. So it is understandable that a woman might describe the Pill as connected to her identity, using the language of the world we live in. And in the US this makes sense, as the Pill is advertised on television and in magazines and women buy it, and it is a big monthly purchase, so of course it would also be a part of consumer identity. In the UK women are given the Pill, for 'free,' and this holds a whole host of other issues.

The Pill let the woman 'own her identity as a woman' - without it therefore, we can assume, she wouldn't own her identity. Now, is this the socially created identity of 'woman' as a concept, or her identity as a woman as how she feels it is to be a woman? Perhaps this is indistinguishable. The Pill stops ovulation, stops menstruation, stops the hormonal cycle. By stopping these bodily events, the woman only then owns her identity. She takes possession of her body. She perhaps was, as many women are, alienated from her body. Frightened of it perhaps, suspicious, or at the least irritated, by its workings. If she doesn't own her body, then who does, before she takes the Pill?

Of course this has been talked about a lot - this idea that as teenage girls mature into women, they feel their bodies displaced by their realization of their physical attractiveness to men - as in Simon De Beauvoir's The Second Sex. When the Pill is prescribed to teenage girls it is like a drug for a personality disorder, a way of securing their body and mind, preventing the fracture. Yet it enables the fracture - it drives the problems in the 'right' direction, that is towards emphasis on the exterior, displaced sexuality and identity as performance. When you're a teenager and you take the Pill you stop getting heavy periods, your skin clears, your hair gets glossy and you feel 'grown up' - it's a short cut to the social concept of womanhood. I think the woman's statement also relates to my previous post regarding the idea of taking the Pill as getting beyond the female.

It could be said that the identity she speaks of is the social concept of female, an image she can only get close to by taking the Pill. All that I've said previously about how the Pill links up to long held ideas of what being a woman means, and how a woman should be - the sick, child-like woman glorified by the Victorians to the clean, quiet, ever-ready for sex woman celebrated in the present day - is part of the 'identity' of being a woman that is suggested by the statement. Taking ownership sounds rebellious, but it could easily mean committing fully to the identity that you are presented with daily, and that isn't rebellious at all. But if you don't really 'feel' the same as what you are told you are supposed to feel as a woman, or 'look' the same, or 'behave' the same even - then taking the Pill, and taking ownership as such, could be seen as a very active choice. The woman takes the Pill to fit, to make her independent way in society without distraction. As another woman says, quoted in the same chapter:

'I just couldn't picture a fully functioning society without the Pill, it's like asking what the impact of the telephone system is.'

This reads then that the Pill is both vital to upholding and indivisible from our present way of life. The Pill is necessary - society would not have continued without its existence. It is perhaps then, civilizing? It could be said that the implication of this statement is that women would not function without the Pill, and that would hold back the progression of society. The Pill is so important that to question its presence, its position would be anti-progressive. The telephone system was the original source, but the idea of the 'telephone' encompasses much more now than it did then. The Pill is vital to the system of our selves and vital to the system of the society in which we live. If it is this much more than a drug, it is easy to see why concerns about its impact on health and well-being are so blithely sidelined. It's not just the unwanted pregnancy rate that is at stake, it is everything as we know it. The Pill is said to be nothing because it is everything.

Elaine Tyler May noted that a significant percentage of the respondents to her request for Pill stories were not heterosexual, some were bisexual and many were homosexual - as they defined it. I am surprised this view wasn't raised when I was blogging for Bitch, I had not considered it before - that women who have relationships only with other women and are therefore not using the Pill for birth control, still use the Pill. Some of the bisexual woman, according to May, stated that they took the Pill even when seeing another woman and were irritated at having to justify this to their partner, who would sometimes assume it was because they were also sleeping with men. Why would a lesbian woman want to take the Pill? Well, it can be assumed, for all the reasons heterosexual women take the Pill - most of which don't have much to do with birth control.

May actually also highlights in one sentence that respondents often said they didn't use the Pill alone, but with condoms. Yet May's book barely otherwise acknowledges that the Pill is not taken only for birth control, it is not even necessarily the main reason, nor the most important reason women take it. Nearly all books about the Pill contextualize its creation, its acceptance, its popularity through discussion of the drug as purely birth control. Talking from this place is much simpler than talking within the reality of how the Pill is taken, why the Pill is taken.

I would be interested to know the transgender standpoint on the Pill, if a woman wants to be seen as man, and sees herself as a man, does she make the choice to take the Pill so that she doesn't have to have periods? This is an intriguing point. I recall reading a study in which a medication including the synthetic progesterone drospirenone which is part of Yasmin, but also used in drugs created for transgender women who want to suppress their testosterone production, was tested on a group of transgender volunteers for its impact on cognitive function.

Chris Bobel's book New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation talks very intelligently and fascinatingly about how the radical menstruation activist movement is made up of mostly non-heterosexual identifying people. She discusses their views on having, stopping and hiding periods. Some see stopping and hiding periods as the mark of corporate ownership of our bodies. Being open and honest about periods is part of their belief that people should assess their identity as independent and critical of the pressures of consumerism. They try to separate out what they want, feel and like from what they are encouraged to want, feel and like and to construct their selves outside of the boundaries of what fits.

May - who, by the way has some oddly old-fashioned opinions on sex that rise to the surface throughout her book - quotes one non-heterosexual identifying respondent as saying:

'The Pill became a form of abuse. I would take it straight through for months at a time so as to miss my period and be able to have sex like a man.'

A whole world of concepts in that couple of sentences.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Since my last post it's been the 50th anniversary of the Pill. This event produced many, many articles glowing in their regard, and packed with some amazing hyperbole. I'm a journalist, so I get that when there's a certain space to fill in a newspaper it is sometimes necessary to create a story, a tale and it doesn't necessarily have to be true, it just has to be easy to write, easy to wrap up and require only a little research. Most people I've met in journalism would rather be writing novels, or song lyrics or short stories, so it makes sense to me that the 'news' can often have more in common with creative writing than the facts of what happened when and how.

I don't particularly mind that either, because I know what's more interesting for me to write, and to read. I recently read an article in the Atlantic magazine about how news has become homogenised, with most reportage relating the same information from the same viewpoint with the same angle. The Atlantic writer argued that for print journalism to sustain itself people need to start getting more creative about how they think and write about events.

For the 50th anniversary of the Pill the same old narrative was rolled out, which of course suggested the Pill not only liberated women, but that everything that has ever changed for women in the last half century is down to the Pill, that the Pill is the safest drug around and the only issue to contend with now is that access needs to be expanded so that more women can take it. Without the Pill women would not have been able to work, have careers and so on - I find this particular way of framing the narrative interesting because there were and there are many women who don't take the Pill and the logical extension of this argument is that any woman not on the Pill is not emancipated, and is still living an oppressed life, job-less, career-less, with ten children. If women did and do have careers without being on the Pill, that seems to serve to undermine the point.

Well, I'm being a little pretend-naive - of course, I am sure what this is supposed to mean is the mere existence of the Pill changed the situation of women and thereby created all that progress. But still, some articles really did lay out the idea that if not for the Pill, women would be having babies all over the place. The articles that were more clear on their history and acknowledged certain changes were underway long before the Pill came out still concluded with the same old, hackneyed lines about how the Pill is just amazing and we mustn't ever forget that. It's like the Pill is considered the same as the democratic vote, in that women fought long and hard for the 'right' and anyone who doesn't vote/take the Pill is ungrateful and ignorant. Kind of similar too in the fact that even when you have a vote, we're always faced with the same old choices - in the UK the public school old boy, here in the US pro-war Hilary or Sarah Palin. You can't vote outside of the system.

Women not taking the Pill are, like any minority, being squeezed out. An article on the Salon site written by a woman who found the Pill knocked out her libido calls non-Pill takers, 'Pill refugees' - and I have to say I felt a lot like that last week when I discovered I can only buy spermicide at one Rite-Aid in town and that only had two boxes left. The article was one of only three, excluding my own in The Independent, that took a critical stand - although two of those three again concluded with celebration. It's a bit like how the American president can suggest his country might need to change how it uses oil or how it eats, but he must always, always finish every slightly negative speech with the repetition of some patriotic nonsense about the Founding Fathers and Lincoln and Freedom. As such he can never really make any real changes, because he has to keep going over old ground and old ideas. He can never say, look we need to start over here, we got it all wrong.

Why I hate the Pill - Salon

Why I'll never take the Pill again - The Independent

Seek alternatives to the Pill - The Washington Post

The repetition of the Pill narrative reflects the ritual of millions of women taking a Pill each morning for years. As women pop the Pill they are ingesting all that the Pill means, everything it represents about how women are viewed, how they view themselves, their place in society. As we repeat the Pill story over and over we are confirming to ourselves the assumptions of that story - we are taking in again and again that the Pill liberated women, who needed the Pill to have careers and so on. It's like telling a fairytale, and like any fairytale it perpetuates traditional ideas, compounds traditional roles - and by traditional I mean the ideas and roles most useful and acceptable to those who get to decide.

The Salon piece came out the same time as some 'new' research showing that the Pill does indeed effect libido. Not much of a surprise there. It seems common knowledge these day, knowledge that is easily, happily accepted by most. I once had it pointed out to me that research into potential mood changes from the Pill, what there is, never only look at mood, but always link the study up with libido changes. The Salon writer admitted her lack of sex drive was coupled with a change in her emotional state, but only in that she felt bad about how it was impacting on her relationship, and therefore her self-esteem. The research scientist behind the latest libido statistics, Dr Irwin Goldstein, argued that a lowered libido can affect a woman's 'emotional well-being'.

The Pill's effect on libido and it's effect on mood are intertwined in discussion, suggesting it is the libido problem that creates the emotional issues, and that the emotional issues are only a conscious reaction to the change in libido. So, if a woman isn't interested in sex she will become depressed because she wants to be interested in sex, or her partner wants her to be interested in sex, or she feels she ought to be interested in sex. It is rare that you'll hear the emotional change put before the libido change in discussion - it is not usually stated that the Pill makes a woman depressed and if she is feeling depressed she is less likely to want to have sex.

That the emotional side effects of the Pill are not considered separately from the libido side effects shows how women's desire for sex is still being equated with their mental state. Depression, anxiety - these problems used to get lumped together under the heading 'hysteria' - and hysteria was thought to stem from women's reproductive organs and was understood to be generally curable through sexual release. Doctors would use all kinds of instruments to draw women out of their hysteria.

Making libido and emotional changes inseparable in research on the Pill and discussion of the Pill's non-physical impact allows for women's mood and well-being to be detached from their selves. Whether or not they are happy is dependent on whether or not they want to have sex with a man, how they feel about sex, their sex-related feelings. Their unhappiness is linked to their relationships, to other people, to how other people see and experience them. Making mood side effects about libido suggests a woman's emotional life does not exist independently of other people, of specifically I think we can say, men. If a woman is unhappy then, it is because she is not 'relating' to a man. Therefore - women's emotions are controllable by other people, by men, as her mental state is entirely dependent on her relationships and not on anything intrinsic to her self. She has no inner life, I guess I could say. She only reacts to exterior forces.

I suppose perhaps research scientists think it's easier to measure libido changes - a woman will not have sex as much if she doesn't want to, and that is an accountable figure. But as I've said before here, that's very simplistic and based on the male-model of sex and relationships. A man has an exterior physical sign of 'wanting' to have sex - although I think it could be debated as to whether that's true, that is what is accepted - so it can not be understood that a woman might have sex when she doesn't 'want' to physically. Asking women to keep detailed diaries of their day to day emotions and the events of their lives would work well, but also would just trusting women to know when they feel sad because something sad happened, and when they feel sad because of the drug they're taking. I am still astonished at how dismissive people can be of women's own readings of their own feelings.

Perhaps because women are subordinate to men within society, they are thought to be the creation of men. If they are man's creation then they only exist under men's terms. Female only exists because male exists - this binary. Of course, women give birth and create men as such, but if men get to lay out the narrative by which women live, then they are characters within a man's production and have no inner life other than that directly related to men. Doctors will still say they don't want to put ideas in women's heads by telling them about the potential side effects of the Pill, but it seems like more than an assumption of susceptibility. Like in the movies, how women are nearly always just vehicles for the central male character to fulfill his fate. Libido is sex, not sexuality. The Pill, in shutting down the hormone cycle, impacts on the development of a woman's sexuality, not just how she feels about having sex. We still don't like to consider female sexuality as separate from men, as not directed toward men, but as something independent.

So much talk concentrates on how the Pill changed sex, how people approached sex, but there's very little said on how the Pill changed sexuality. I discussed this some in the last post, and I've been lately reading America and The Pill, a book by Elaine Tyler May, in which she discusses the issues surrounding the development of a male Pill. She notes how there has always been much anxiety over how such a drug would effect 'masculinity' which is not only libido, but ideas of power, ego, how it feels to be a 'man.' It is widely accepted that the Pill effects women's libido but not her 'femininity' or her 'femaleness' - and perhaps this is because the Pill is seen to produce an improvement on women - getting rid of periods, assumed 'unpredictablity' and over-emotional qualities - and making her cleaner, quieter. The male Pill is seen as taking something away from men, whereas the female Pill is an addition. When it comes to women, the external is the most important. As long as she looks female.

May also discusses in the book how Hugh Hefner and Playboy really got behind the Pill when it was first released. Hefner saw it as allowing for 'uninhibited' sex. He advocated in a few areas of women's rights, but his campaigning had the overriding message of making women more open to sex, more interested in sex and more openly sexy. The Pill was good for porn, basically. Hefner believed women who did not want to take the Pill to be 'neurotic, prudish and hostile to men' and said as much in the pages of Playboy. Women should tolerate any side effects, he argued, because of the benefits for their 'sexuality' - by which he meant their enjoyment of sex. If women could have more sex, then of course their 'sexuality' would improve, because the quantity of sex is the only marker. Women's sexuality is only understood in relation to sex, not as independent of sex - not as regarding her own relationship with her body, or her understanding of her femaleness.

I have previously considered how the release of the Pill helped progress the capitalist/consumer economy - making more single people to buy more stuff and so on -and interestingly May's book brings out how the population control motivation behind the enthusiasm for the Pill has its origins partly in a belief that prevention of too many births would stop civil unrest that could lead to a brewing of communist ideas. If lots of poor people were being born, and they grew dissatisfied with their unequal lot, they might start thinking of the capitalist system as unfair and injust and the reason for their suffering and therefore start considering alternatives, like communism. The Pill was therefore seen, as she explains, to be 'opening up' new markets for capitalism, and helping its growth.

Over the anniversary time some other research was released that stated use of hormonal contraceptives increases the risk of a woman contracting HIV, increases the development of the virus and speeds the progression of the disease. Joan Robinson, a researcher for the Population Research Institute said that mounting evidence for this has been ignored. It is often argued population control efforts in developing countries are beneficial to women, allowing them to have only wanted children and lead healthier, freer lives, and also allowing for the countries to develop economically. This can not be the case if the women, and then of course the men, have HIV and little access to treatment. This entirely discredits the standpoint of those pushing the Pill on population control grounds. It is just another story that's told over and over, like a fairytale, and in being told is made 'true' - and beyond the reach of criticism.

All of this goes towards establishing one endless hum of a message - there is no alternative. No alternative to the Pill, no alternative to the way things are.