In this blog, I’m going to refute some of the arguments against fertility awareness. At the risk of losing some of my audience immediately, I have included the word feminist in this blog title. A while back, I got into an argument in a Facebook comment section with someone who was offended by this article that questioned the pill and it’s effect on women. The argument went nowhere fast, but it got me thinking.
In many circles, questioning the birth control pill is tantamount to attacking women’s rights. I have been told that I’m not a good feminist if I don’t support the pill. As someone who fully supports women and their choices, and as someone who only wrote about women in my graduate degree (I did a lot of gender studies topics), this assertion really hurts.
I know that the birth control pill changed many people’s lives. It brought women into the public sphere more than ever before. Women could now work and have sex without fear of pregnancy. It is considered a great achievement. What’s better than that?
The problem is that not many women are not fully informed about what their birth control options are before being put on the pill. In addition, women are put on the pill for reasons other than birth control (things like heavy bleeding, endometriosis and PCOS). However, we now know there there are alternative forms of birth control, and that the pill does not treat gynecological conditions (it masks them).
I was put on the birth control at age 15. I suffered from heavy bleeding, and mostly my mom just wanted me on it out of pregnancy fears. My doctor did not give me any information about the pill or expected side effects. (Some may point out that the packet comes with information, but freshman year aged me from high school did not think to read my birth control pack in depth). I was switched between at least 4 different types of birth control that I remember. The pill gave me migraines with aura (which I recently learned means I should have gotten off of it immediately, there is a link with having a stroke and migraines with aura while on the pill). I would lose vision while at work and had other disturbances in my vision. I also had pretty regular nausea, weird bleeding, depression, and digestive issues.
When I came off the pill for the first time at age 21, everything felt different. My emotions felt different, and my relationships changed. However, I was left with little alternatives for contraception. To me, taking the pill had become synonymous with being responsible, and I felt like I was failing at being a responsible woman and controlling my fertility.
At the same time, I felt so great coming off of it that I knew it wasn’t an option for me any longer. I felt truly like myself for the first time. One line in particular from a short film called Birth Control Your Own Adventure really resonated with me. This film is about how one woman struggles to find the right hormonal birth control. At one point a friend asks her, “How do you even know who you are if you’ve always been on the pill?” And, truly, I don’t think I knew myself while I was on it.
In my search for a better birth control, I stumbled upon fertility awareness methods. I found out that it was possible to track my cycle and determine daily whether I was infertile or infertile. Charting my cycle helped me learn when to expect a period. I had no idea that you could literally count high temperatures after ovulation in order to know when to expect a period. This feeling felt revolutionary, and I wanted to tell everyone.
When I try to share the joy I have found in this method, I often hear a few retorts. I’ve listed a few below along with my responses to these arguments.
The Arguments Against Fertility Awareness
- Why should I have to plan sex? It seems kind of sexist that you expect women to wait to have sex at certain points in their cycle. On the pill, I can have sex whenever I want.
With fertility awareness methods, you don’t really have to “plan” to have sex. You can, however, choose to have unprotected sex during the infertile times of the cycle. If you are using a secular form of fertility awareness, you can also use condoms or other barriers during other points of the time in the cycle (keeping in mind that these barrier methods have their own efficacy rates).
I think it’s also worth noting how often the average couple has sex. A 2017 study found that the average American couple only has sex once a week. My window for abstaining or using backup protection is only about 9-11 days long. That’s a little over a week and a half a month. (I’m aware that some women have longer fertile windows. This aspect of fertility awareness is very individual and based on your own unique cycle). So, are these women really missing out on having unprotected sex a little less often?
Finally, yes, you can have sex on the pill whenever you want. However, the pill has been known to lower women’s libido and testosterone. Read this article to find out more. So, while you can have sex any time you want on the pill, doesn’t quality of sex matter? You can still have sex pretty often while using fertility awareness, and you may find you enjoy it more too.
- This method seems really irresponsible. It only takes one time for a woman to get pregnant. What if she decides to have sex in her fertile window?
If someone is fully informed and taught by an instructor, they will know when their fertile window is. Yes, it only takes one time to get pregnant but if you are using fertility awareness, you know when that window is. If she decides to have sex in her fertile window, she may consider a barrier method. Anyone who has sex during their fertile window should be cognizant of the risks of pregnancy. By the way, at a typical use rate of 91%, someone could also have sex in their fertile window without knowing it while on the pill. At least fertility awareness lets women know what is going on in their own body.
- Isn’t that a super religious method? I don’t care for that. It’s my body and I can have sex when I want.
Natural Family Planning is based in religious teachings. Fertility Awareness is not. Women can pick what they feel comfortable with based on their intentions. You can also still learn from NFP resources even if you aren’t religious. The method works the same regardless of any ideology attached to it.
- Isn’t that like the rhythm method? You can ovulate at any time!! That’s not gonna work!
No, it’s not. There are many scientific studies on fertility awareness. Here is one. Here is a recent article reviewing all the studies done on FAM.
Women cannot ovulate at any time. Once ovulation has been confirmed in cycle, it is almost totally impossible for it to happen again. Some people say, “What about superfetation??” This is so rare, and almost impossible to prove. If you are confirming ovulation with a double check method, then you can be safely assured that ovulation will not happen again. At the beginning of a cycle before ovulation is confirmed, it could happen at any time. However, there are rules to follow so that women know when to stay protected.
The typical use rates of fertility awareness (when abstinence is practiced in the fertile window) is higher than the typical use rate of the pill. See my about section for more information.
- But women need the pill for medical conditions, you know like endometriosis? Do you want women to suffer?
Obviously, I don’t want that. What’s important to know here is that the pill doesn’t actually treat endometriosis, or PCOS, or anything else really. It just masks the problem. If you have extreme period pain, you need expert care. The pill may mask problems that would eventually hurt a woman’s health and fertility. In particular, I want to note that if you are suffering from endometriosis, there is help. Join Nancy’s Nook Endometriosis Education to learn what your options are. For PCOS, Alissa Vitti is a great resource. Here is her website.
- Isn’t it kind of anti-feminist of you to promote this? Women should be able to control their fertility however they choose.
Ah, my favorite question. I do agree that women should be able to control their fertility however they want. My whole shtick is that they should be fully informed in order to make this decision. With the dearth of good sexual education programs in the USA, almost no one is informed enough. Even doctors aren’t informed enough. Many only take one measly birth control class. Fertility awareness instructors do more than that, and they aren’t even in medical school. If more women knew that fertility awareness methods actually worked, they could make the decision to learn more about their body. I believe that all women should learn about fertility awareness methods as soon as they have their first cycle. It is so useful for girls to know what’s going on in their bodies!
I also argue that we have a #righttoovulate. I saw Dr. Lara Briden post this hashtag a while back, and I love it. Ovulation is amazing. And actually, I think it’s sort of anti-feminist to take that away from women, especially if they don’t understand what they are missing. Women are only fertile for around 24 hours a cycle (men’s sperm life makes up the rest of the fertile window). This is such a small window. Don’t we deserve the benefits of ovulation? Read Dr. Lara Briden’s article, “Ode to Ovulation” to learn more. In addition, some people have argued that it takes 7 years to develop fully healthy hormonal cycles, shouldn’t we be able to do that too? Putting women on birth control when they are young prevents so many of those benefits.
**I will note that I understand that hormonal birth control can be invaluable in domestic violence situations, or when a woman really cannot do FAM, or is forced on HBC for unrelated medical conditions. I just want the average woman to know that she has other options.
Most of the arguments against FAM are from uniformed people who don’t know what they don’t know. Fertility Awareness is actually feminist, and it’s certainly not anti-woman. It allows women to take control of their own fertility (here’s a great book on that). What’s more feminist than fully owning and living in your own body, while also avoiding pregnancy and planning it as you choose? Why should women subdue their own fertility when their fertile window is so short?
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