Sweetening the Pill


In 2013 Holly Grigg-Spall published her book Sweetening The Pill Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control.


I was so relieved to read this book and engage with the debates surrounding it. The pill and its huge side effects should be a hot feminist topic. More women need to get involved in this debate. You must read this book.

The pill is often spoken of simultaneously with female liberation; but the dark side of the pill, and the huge mental health impacts, are little discussed.

My research interests fall broadly under the regulation of women’s bodies and hormonal birth control is something I am passionate about discussing. Grigg-Spall argues that for many young women (girls infact) the decision to take the pill is made for them, and they don’t reassess this decision until their twenties: “The choice to take the pill is fiercely protected and yet that choice is rarely autonomous and informed” (Grigg-Spall, 2013,p.41).

How is the pill a ‘free choice’ when young teenagers have it thrust upon them, and doctors often treat grown women as children where hormonal contraception is concerned? I have friends with PhDs who have had full-blown arguments with Drs trying to coerce them into taking, or remaining upon, the pill. As a 30 year old married woman who gave up the pill 18 months ago, I can tell you the shock on medical staff’s faces when they fill in forms and ask what contraceptive you are on, and you say “none”. It is assumed that we will use a hormonal method.

My own story is like that of many women. I started taking the pill aged 14 for medical reasons, later diagnosed by laparoscopies as Pelvic Congestion Syndrome and adhesions on my bowel. I thought taking the pill, especially back-to-back packs to avoid the excruciating pain of menstruation was a fab idea. The alternative (I thought) was to suffer the horrendous pain of bits ripping off my insides and being unable to walk during my period due the cramps.

I didn’t make the connection between my depression, anxiety, anger, headaches and very black thoughts and the pill. No one ever pointed it out to me. So I just got on with it. I tried to come off the pill several times in my early twenties, and suffered such bad withdrawal symptoms I started taking it again. This is when I first got very concerned, what exactly was I taking!?

After having a laparoscopy to remove adhesions from my bowel causing all sorts of pelvic pain and IBS related problems, I had the good fortune to speak with a female nurse. She suggested that the pill could be making my pain worse. No doctor or consultant ever explained this to me. She explained the science behind her claim, and I came out of that room determined to kick the habit.

It took me 3 months to stop withdrawal cravings of the pill. There were times when I was tempted to just start taking it again, but I persevered. I feel like a new woman. I don’t have PMT, headaches, the mania, the depression, the anger, the highs and lows. I feel a lot calmer, my body in 95 percent less pain. My periods are now lighter, and for the first time in my life I have and know my regular cycle. I can feel when I am ovulating. I know my own body and feel empowered. I felt detatched from my body in many ways before.

We often sold the pill as ‘take this or you will get pregnant’. Not so. I know my own body now better than I ever did. As women, we are not taught other methods, we are just told to get popping pills.

I have been warned by friends with babies that if I choose to have one myself, one of the first questions I will be asked is what contraception I will be using afterwards, and again I will have hormones forced upon me. This is a feminist issue. . Grigg-Spall argues that “Neither pregnancy nor fertility should be viewed as an illness that requires treatment with pharmaceuticals or surgery” (2013, p. 74). It shouldn’t be so hard for us to go hormone free, or have a home birth. Our bodies should not be medicalized at every turn.

Yesterday I read Professor Alice Robert’s article: Mood swings? It might be more than PMS…
The most commonly prescribed combined contraceptive pill has a potential side-effect that more women – and GPs – should know about.
Great I thought. Another woman bringing this into the mainstream to debate. I was overwhelmed by the amount of women on twitter sharing their experiences.

But then, as always, some men waded in, shooting down Prof Roberts, and dismissing the women’s experiences as merely ‘anecdotal’. Women’s narratives are often explained away as merely their opinions, not of value. As a feminist PhD researcher I say that women’s experiences of their own issues are of upmost importance. I don’t need some man to tell me what I have and haven’t experienced. The same way I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to wade into a debate on male hormones or issues. But there’s male privilege, telling a female professor on social media that she’s wrong.

Because you know… science! Science that told us women should have clitoridectomies for masturbating, ECT for arguing with their spouse and quietened with drugs. I mean what with our wombs roaming our bodies making us hysterical and all…

These men believe only peer reviewed journals have a voice.. which is laughable thinking of the tripe I have read in journals over the years. The privilege of science and whose voice is heard completely lost on this men.

It is important to note that women often do not realise the pill is causing their problems. It can take 20 years or more for them to realise. We are taught not to question the pill, instead more pills are offered to us in the form of anti-depressants.

I had a consultant practically forcing Depo-Provera on me, despite the side effects. I had to very assertively say no! Women and girls need to be educated so they can make the right choices for themselves and know the risks.

Another problem is that we told that sex is sexual intercourse, not that penetration is one form of sex. Female pleasure and orgasm isn’t taught in schools, just the role of penis and sperm. Therefore we are sold contraceptives that ‘guard’ against pregnancy 365.

Rather than fighting about lap-dancing clubs or pole-dancing societies, we need to make a feminist campaign for the side effects of the pill. This is a real feminist issue. We need to facilitate a safe space where women’s voices have authority, where women are spoken with not for. I welcome social media’s role in this.

Have you had negative experiences from the pill? Join the discussion.