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.


  1. Thank you for this great post! I wrote some comments on your blog on bitch magazines website but I am not sure if you still write on there.

  2. I could not agree with you more on your position on the pill. My husband and I too a different turn with this "contraceptive" issue. We used NFP and went on to develop a software program that helps women understand and chart their fertility signs. It has been fabulous for us and the side effects are increase awareness of personal fertility and intimacy! Awesome the work that you are doing :)