Was the pill all that revolutionary?

My dad loves, and I mean loves, to talk about how the pill is what enabled women to become equal. He talks about it as if it’s the end-all-be-all of contraceptive and that something like women having a pill that they can take to prevent pregnancy was the deciding moment in the struggle for equality. Now, I think he presents it this way mostly because my family tends to talk in hyperbole, but I do think that it’s a reflection of the common way of thinking of the pill as freedom for women.

Now, obviously the pill has done some great things for some women. I’m not disputing that. But I would like to highlight a post by BetaCandy, How the pill revolutionized sex… for men, where she questions the conventional wisdom that the pill was some miraculous discovery for women everywhere:

We already had the solution to women’s freedom to have sex without worries about pregnancy: condoms. So why did we need a pill to market the concept that women could now have sex as they pleased?

Because men didn’t like condoms, and this “sexual freedom” women were being granted took place within a framework of having to sexually appeal to men and their preferences. I realize there were other apparent advantages to the pill: it was more convenient, it didn’t interrupt the moment, and for a lot of women it made periods more manageable (which sounds trivial to those who’ve never experienced grossly difficult or irregular periods, but trust me: it seems like a godsend at the time). But it wasn’t marketed as “convenient”; it was marketed as “freedom”, when condoms already provided that very freedom, plus STD protection, without side effects.

And I think that’s something that’s important to think about because so many things that are packaged in our society as “freedom” for women really translate into some freedom for women, but much more freedom for men. I feel like the rhetoric of the pill as revolutionary is symptomatic of the way women’s needs and wants are subsumed by greater narratives that, ultimately, cater more towards the needs of others rather than the needs of ourselves.

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This entry was posted in Feminism, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Health. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Was the pill all that revolutionary?

  1. Kimiko says:

    There is of course also the point that condoms are not under a woman’s own control, whereas BC pills are.

  2. tekanji says:

    But is that really “freedom”? There are other methods — such as diaphragms and IUD’s — that are in the woman’s control, too, but in our current sexual climate what the result ends up being more often than not is to shift all responsibility onto the woman for contraceptive, rather than having it be a shared responsibility between partners.

    Frankly, the more I think about it the less I’m convinced that “freedom” should be a word used in this context. Sexual acts between people should be founded on mutual respect and responsibility. Because of the risks — such as pregnancy and STD’s — they aren’t something that should be taken lightly and while people should be able to freely pursue sexual relationships in ways that they find to be emotionally gratifying, I feel like championing it under the banner of “freedom” erases the responsibility one has to keep oneself, and one’s partners, safe and healthy.

  3. Reb says:

    It’s also worth noting that diaphragms and IUDs *don’t* prevent STDs. Condoms are much more effective at stopping common STDs than anything else; they aren’t 100% effective (herpes can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, not just intercourse, so it can’t be prevented via the condom) but, for example, they’re about the only way to reliably prevent HIV transmission during sex.

  4. Theriomorph says:

    Seriously. And for me and a bunch of other women, those pesky little side-effects are life-threatening (while I’m also daily puking my guts out from migraine, which is a huge turn on for me and everyone else), while I am also exposed to higher risk of STD as a result of the lack o’ condom. I feel so free! : )

    Griping aside, though, the STD piece really can’t be underestimated. An incredibly large percentage of the calls I took on an HIV counseling and testing hotline were from women in ostensibly committed, monogamous relationships who were using the pill (or IUD, diaphragm, Depo-Provera shot, sponge) who found out their partner cheated. So.

    I really like condoms.

  5. Kristy says:

    I hate the pill! When it first come out it killed many women and unfortunately it is the same thing that women take today but in smaller doses. I think playing with your hormones is very dangerous a lot like HRT. They already know that there is a link between breast cancer and the pill and I’m sure that the risk is greater than say but it would costs a lot of money to pharmaceutical companies if it was known.

    I also think it is crazy that men produce sperm constantly and women are the ones that are supposed to be responsible for contraception by playing around their hormones.

    It also creates issues where people seem to worry only about pregnancy and not STDs or STIs as they are now known.

    I have had issues in the past with male partners refusing to use condoms because they don’t feel ‘good’ and I have said ‘well we won’t have sex then’. That seems to fix the issue but I’m sure most women whether they like the pill or not feel pressured into taking it. I also know many women who have had kids and don’t want to have more kids but their partners refuse to have a vasectomy so they have had to continue to use the pill. It just seems selfish to me.

  6. tekanji says:

    I should have done a better job plugging BetaCandy’s article; she specifically addresses the STD issue as a major point. I didn’t want to steal her thunder ^^;;

    I’m also one of the ones who can’t take the pill. It takes away my cramps but it leaves me emotionally unbalanced and prone to feelings of suicide. I got a tubal a few years ago, though, so I use condoms for STD/STI prevention and not birth control.

  7. lilacsigil says:

    I have a girlfriend, so I don’t need the pill for contraception! It has, however, freed me from randomly timed, 10-day-long extremely heavy periods, accompanied by cramps too painful to stand up straight and two-day-long migraines. As I have PCOS, it also means that my raised risk of ovarian cancer is lowered again. I know it raises my risk of breast cancer, but I would rather risk breast cancer than ovarian cancer – one is often detectable and treatable, the other is rarely so. So every day I am thankful to the scientists who wondered about hormonal birth control.

  8. I agree that the pill and other hormonal methods of BC are often seen as the only way to go when there are other good methods out there. It’s just so damned complicated. A lot of patients that I come in contact with are in situations where condom negotiation is a huge issue. A lot of patients I see don’t even think about STIs until they’re faced with a possible infection. A lot just don’t get the education they need until they come into the clinic. Societal values also play a huge role–it’s not as “shameful” or as embarrassing to go pick up a prescription as it is to walk up to a counter with a box of condoms (or even worse, ask for the glass case of condoms to be be opened if they’re under lock and key.) And many women feel that the (slightly) higher failure rate of condoms can’t compare to the security they feel when using hormonal methods. This, of course, is only when they’re considering pregnancy and not STIs–and I feel when sex and reproduction is discussed in our general culture, we tend to gloss over all STIs in general.

    Lately I’ve noticed that there seems to be more women who are getting IUDs, but what’s interesting to me is that the more popular one is the Mirena, an IUC that releases a low rate of hormones.

  9. I prefer sex without condoms. I am female. I’m not sure what that does to the theory that sex sans condoms is a male-only preference, and therefore the condom-less sex made available by the pill is more to the benefit of men than women.

  10. tekanji says:

    I’m not sure what that does to the theory that sex sans condoms is a male-only preference, and therefore the condom-less sex made available by the pill is more to the benefit of men than women.

    Um… what? Seriously, I don’t know how you read my taking issue with packaging the pill as “freedom” as “the theory that sex sans condoms is a male-only preference”. This isn’t about personal preference. All I can say is that you need to re-read what I’ve said and it would probably help if you actually read the original post and its comments.

  11. BetaCandy says:

    Thanks for the plug! I like the discussion over here.

    As I have PCOS, it also means that my raised risk of ovarian cancer is lowered again.

    As far as I know, this is still true, but I’m just waiting to hear they’ve suddenly discovered it’s not. There seems to be a lot of research on PCOS at the moment (yay!) and they’re learning that (a) the pill exacerbates the insulin resistance, which can lead to other life-threatening conditions like diabetes while protecting you from cancer (lovely double-edged sword) and (b) that you can have PCOS without having the cysts. A fact my last doctor didn’t know. /eyeroll Because I can’t seem to take the pill without having crippling migraines twice a week, I’ve come to the end of what medical science can do for me, and am now having to look into herbal remedies which have had clinical trials in the UK and Germany. But I’m hopeful new research will find a real treatment.

    I prefer sex without condoms. I am female. I’m not sure what that does to the theory that sex sans condoms is a male-only preference, and therefore the condom-less sex made available by the pill is more to the benefit of men than women.

    Since no one put forth a theory that it’s a male-only preference, it does nothing to the imaginary theory you apparently created for the purposes of shooting down and then patting yourself on the back.

  12. Anna says:

    I loved BetaCandy’s original post, because it got me thinking.

    For me, the pill is about control – I’m not on the pill at the moment, so I don’t feel a lot of control regarding my cycles or my potential of pregnancy. Even though my lover is getting a vasectomy, I intend to get back on the pill when I return to Canada because I want that control. That, to me, feels like freedom because I’m in control.

    I don’t think that this translates to control (or freedom) for anyone else, though. I mean, very obviously it doesn’t for a lot of women.

  13. scarlett says:

    In regards to Theriomorph’s comments about women getting STDs from cheating partners -

    I’m overlooking the whole moral issues with cheating in the first place, but having cheated, I think it’s incredibly selfish and irresponsible NOT to use condoms in that situation. Not only is it dumb just in the sense that you should be using condoms if a person’s sexual history/health is questionable, but it’s selfish and irresponsible to then be going home to someone who’s got every right to think they’re in a monogomous, disease-free relationship.

  14. Kristy says:

    Ohh I forgot to mention that some condoms (ribbed, studded) actually feel better :-)

  15. Kristy says:

    Also I have had much more success at controlling period pain and problems periods with traditional chinese medicine than the pill. It takes longer to work but is worth it knowing that I am not putting myself at further risk of things like breast cancer.

  16. Mickle says:

    The pill was more freedom in that it is another choice and it is another choice that can be controlled by the woman, but it is also less freedom in that it helped put the responsibility for birth control squarely on the shoulders on women – yet again.

    What we really need are just more options period – most especially a male birth control pill.

  17. Mickle says:

    And, obviously, changes in attitudes. :)

  18. lilacsigil says:

    (b) that you can have PCOS without having the cysts
    My gynaecologist did know this – she was a knowledgeable, helpful and fat-friendly doctor who has now moved to another state, which is good news for the women there but not so good for me! I’d read about the exacerbation of insulin resistance, but I’m managing the insulin resistance with healthy eating which is holding things steady (for now, anyway!). I’ve already had one kind of endocrine cancer, so for me the risk of ovarian cancer far outweighs the other problems with the pill. I appreciate people like you and many of the feminist and science blogers who keep up with the research and investigate all the risks and benefits – nothing is without risk, and it’s good to be able to choose with my eyes open!

  19. Brad says:

    The point about how condoms prevent STD’s certainly it the big one. The one thing that may make sense is it gives women the freedom of not having to rely on the guy having a condom on hand. Thus not having to stop the moment to go get a condom or having to make the decision to have unprotected sex (assuming both parties are rational).

    Granted women also can have condoms on hand, but the pill could allow for having “wrapped up in the moment” sex. A friend of mine was on the pill just for having regular periods and isn’t one to have sex regularily. The pill just might be freedom for someone like her who doesn’t have it regularily, but it’s there should she feel like it, without having to have condoms on hand and/or count on the guy to have them as well.

    Not sure if that works, but I’m just thinking of the whole “freedom” thing.

  20. Jo says:

    I also prefer sex without condoms*, but, as is mentioned here, the marketing for the Pill is freedom for women, when, in my experience, the men in my life benefitted far more from HBC than I ever did.

    I had the crazies with it too, tekanji. The hormones basically exacerbated anything that was wrong with me (mood swings, depression), and I got nauseous with them too.

    Understanding they’re beneficial to some, but not to others, really makes me question how hard they’re marketed as The Contraceptive(tm).

    *Sometimes. Sometimes it really doesn’t make a difference, and sometimes ribbing is good.

  21. BetaCandy says:

    Also I have had much more success at controlling period pain and problems periods with traditional chinese medicine than the pill.

    I’m trying Vitex, which is an herb used in Britain for women who don’t have periods regularly. *cross fingers*

    Lilacsigil, I’m glad you’ve had a doctor like that, who enabled you to make smart choices. Good luck finding another one! (And I’d be happy to find even one – I’ve been getting the “If you’d just lose weight” speech from doctors since I weighed 114.)

    Understanding they’re beneficial to some, but not to others, really makes me question how hard they’re marketed as The Contraceptive(tm).

    Exactly. At this point, it’s probably just because it’s such a lucrative pharmaceutical niche. Maybe that was always the reason.

  22. Kristy says:

    Brad, i’m not sure how long it takes you to put on a condom. But I have plenty of “wrapped up in the moment” sex quite easily. The condoms are right next to the bed and takes literally one minute to put on.

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