Like many women, I’ve tried most contraceptive methods. I soldiered on with Microgynon and Cerazette for years longer than I should have, and spent multiple afternoons in the university surgery with an infected implant. The copper coil was a medieval experience, both in its painful insertion and the fact that it made my hair fall out, as if in punishment for wanting one-night stands. In the end, I decided morning-after pills were worth the expense if they saved me the heartache. When I later found out that I would need fertility treatment to get pregnant, my first thought was that Boots owed teenage me a lot of money.
I don’t regret a thing. We millennials would risk pretty much anything to have carefree sex — even our waistlines. A new generation of women, however, is not so keen. They aren’t wild about the acne, mood swings, weight gain, heavy bleeding and migraines that are associated with hormonal contraceptives. According to Tik Tokers, those side-effects are now thought to extend to anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. So while taking the pill used to be something of a rite of passage, now women are coming off it in droves.
Part of the problem is there just isn’t much reliable scientific research into why different contraceptives cause different reactions. For most women, finding your contraceptive is like embarking on a blind taste test of various pills, injections and contraptions. Information about how contraceptives work is hard to find and often mystifying. We’ve long known the pill wasn’t perfect. It was described by Elizabeth Siegel Watkins in 2001 as the “least unsatisfactory choice in contraception for American women”. And the “father of the pill”, Carl Djerassi, predicted back in 1989 that “new approaches to birth control – for example a male pill, a once-a-month menses inducer, and an antifertility vaccine – cannot be realized before the next century”. In fact, he said, choice is likely to become more limited, pointing to “an informed and highly motivated group of women [who] strongly criticised the pill while emphasising their abhorrence at male domination.” This middle-class feminist politics resented the idea that women would have to endure side effects to prevent pregnancies and questioned the idea that science might enable women’s sexual freedom.
Yet over 70 years since the pill was first synthesised, he has been proved right. In an article echoing Djerassi, Nicola Thorp wrote in 2018 that the “contraceptive industry is institutionally sexist“. She asked why it was that women were expected to “try different methods until they simply give up and are forced to accept the least painful side effects”? And she also makes the case that if women don’t take action, nothing will change. And today, women aren’t pushing for an improved formulation, with fewer side effects or greater efficiency. Quite the opposite, in fact, the idea of scientific “meddling” with our bodies and medicalising health is increasingly eschewed by younger generations and nowhere more so than in the already fraught world of women’s reproductive health.
The change has been drastic. NHS data for women accessing sexual-health services in 2022-2023 shows the number of women using “natural family planning” to prevent pregnancies has doubled in ten years and the number choosing oral contraceptives has plummeted (down from 429,600 to 126,400 in a decade). It’s only a snapshot but the data does align with trends we’re seeing elsewhere. Natural Cycles, the non-hormonal contraceptive method of choice for celebrities and influencers, is now so popular it boasts over two million users and has been cleared by the FDA in America.
“I’m not convinced dressing up age-old methods, like the rhythm method, in snazzy new apps is the reproductive utopia fem-tech companies want us to believe it is,” says Dr Rebecca Steinfeld, an expert in the politics of reproductive justice. “They all romanticise a past when people lacked access to revolutionary, literally life-saving innovations like modern contraception, effective pain relief in labour, safe surgery in birth, and life-sustaining formula milk,” she says. And what many pill-critics don’t like to admit is that “natural” techniques are much less trustworthy. “I felt colossally naïve,” said one user who got accidentally pregnant while on Natural Cycles, “I’d used the app in the way I do most of the technology in my life: not quite knowing how it works, but taking for granted that it does.”
This return to “natural” or non-medical methods of contraceptives and the boom in digital period tracking does point to an interesting shift in discussions about women’s bodies. Much of what informs the criticism of the pill today is the idea that hormonal contraceptives prevent women from feeling “in touch” with themselves. No longer simply a practical issue of how to overcome a biological hurdle, methods of contraception feed into the idea of a woman’s sense of self.
For a new small-c conservative wave of feminists, it’s also a political tool they wish to dispense of. The pill, they claim, messes with our bodies and with our agency: the pill isn’t a means to allow women sexual freedom, but a political green flag to allow men to behave like animals. This form of reactionary feminism might find most of its fans in young conservative men hoping for a more straight-laced style of womanhood, but it does suggest that for many on the right, the pill remains a symbol of degeneration in women’s virtue, honour and virginity.
“Conflating scientific innovation and patriarchal control is a problem,” Steinfeld tells me, “the two are not synonymous. Even if pharmaceutical companies are still predominantly owned by men or obstetrics originated as a male-dominated profession, why does that make the pill a tool of the patriarchy? Throwing the baby out with the bath water springs to mind.”
Obviously, not all women take such a deterministic view. And many don’t have the luxury of experimenting with natural family planning. As a consultant in sexual and reproductive healthcare in deprived areas of the country, Jane Dickson tells me that there are plenty of women still “actively seeking effective contraception”. Obviously, she says, “women looking for the more natural methods tend to be from more affluent sectors of society who have done a lot of research themselves”. Working-class women tend to be more interested in preventing a catastrophic unwanted pregnancy than feeling their “real self”.
This new brand of introspective, nature-knows-best feminism is failing women. Instead of demanding that the medical establishment comes up with quicker, cheaper and better ways for women to manage their bodily functions — and allowing us to enjoy our lives as unencumbered as men — we seem to be fetishising the very things that might hold us back. While those who wished to hold women back in the past claimed that we were ruled by our bodies, ironically it is now feminist campaigners calling for period leave, denouncing the pill and claiming that women are more anxious than men. This trajectory could have grave consequences for women’s freedom, reintroducing the idea that our bodies should change the way we operate in the world. Regardless of how you fell about the pill, this should worry women everywhere.