At the age of fifteen, hormones raged at my high school. Virginity was discarded like baggy jeans and traded in for chic, skinny-fit sexual activity. A new fad took hold. That year, just about every girl in my grade started taking the pill. Even if we swore we weren’t having sex, our mothers marched us into doctors’ offices, erring on the side of caution. We opted in to control our acne, our heavy flows, or our weight, and protection against unwanted pregnancy was just an added bonus.
Quickly, lunchtime discussions switched from conversations about the latest episode of The OC to which contraception we had been prescribed. Gone were the days of Marissa and Summer, now was the age of Yasmin™ and Diane™.
Years passed, and my faithful low-dose friend stayed true. Once a year, when I realised I was on my last yellow morsel, I dropped into the late-night doctor’s office for a refill. After waiting an hour to get through the door, I left five minutes later with that oblong ticket to fornicate in my hands (including the obligatory three repeats, of course). Rarely was I asked any questions. No-one ever talked to me about what might be happening inside my body, over years of suppressing ovulation and changing the hormonal makeup of my chemical ecosystem.
In my late twenties I began suffering from bouts of depression and anxiety, a loss of libido, female orgasmic disorder, and headaches and bloating, among other physical and psychological symptoms. Reluctant to start taking another series of medications, I joined a movement of women my age going off the pill. To our mothers, the pill meant increased work opportunities, prolonged childbearing and the ability to take greater agency over their bodies. Now, the pill was starting to mean something quite different, and I began to question its long-term implications and side effects.
While not advocating a contraceptive cold turkey or sexual free-for-all, I found myself in a fortunate situation where I could say goodbye to my medicinal mate of fifteen years. In a long-term relationship, and disease-free, I downloaded an app that tracked my cycles via the fertility awareness method (FAM).
During my investigations into coming off the pill, I found I wasn’t alone in my decision. Statistics in Australia show that pill usage is on the decline, and non-hormonal contraceptives such as copper IUDs are on the rise. Research has also surprisingly shown that FAM methods are as successful as the pill when exercised correctly – a viable alternative for those with the discipline to employ restraint when required.
Despite common beliefs about carefree gen-Y lifestyles, millennial women are not only using less birth control than our mothers, we are also having less penetrative sex with fewer sexual partners. When my twenty-one-year-old colleague said condoms were her preferred contraceptive, I asked what she does when her partners don’t want to use one. ‘I don’t have sex with them,’ she replied, with a ‘duh’ look on her face. Millennial women are more discerning about what goes into their bodies in more ways than one. Sexual freedom doesn’t just mean the right to have lots of sex, but also the right to decline.
Once I was off the pill for a few months, I found there was no reason to track my period, because I didn’t get one. Despite many negative pregnancy tests, I experienced pregnancy-like symptoms, and doctors couldn’t tell me whether this was normal, whether I might be experiencing early menopause, or whether something else was wrong. ‘Were your cycles regular before the pill?’ the middle-aged GP asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully, because I had no recollection of cycles before the pill.
Googling my symptoms, like any good millennial, I found an alarming number of forums and discussion boards where women were experiencing the same things. There were reports of absent periods even after a year, multiple miscarriages due to low zinc levels from extended usage, and many had started to fear for their long-term fertility. While studies have long credited the pill with increased earning potential and social equality for women, there is a quieter voice just starting to speak up: the voice of a generation that has been on the pill for their entire reproductive lives.
Today, whether or not I am taking the pill, I’m still paid less than a man for the same work. Looking within my own department at the university I attend, none of the female academics I know have children. Yes, the pill gave a generation of women more opportunities, but it also forced them to choose, and favoured those who chose the path most similar to their male counterparts. But it still refused them equal treatment. While the choice to not have children is a very valid one, today workplaces and institutions sing the praises of those little packets of estrogen and progestin because they did what the patriarchy of the 60s never imagined: made women more like men.
Just like the fad that swept my high school, a new trend has now arrived. Millennials are turning away from the pill for many reasons, but perhaps partly because women are trying to become more attuned to their bodies. Today, symbols of sexual freedom are not necessarily bought over the counter at the pharmacy, but they still exist, and like the generation before us, we are exercising our rights to choose.
Driving to my next doctor’s appointment, Alanis Morissette’s millennial anthem croons from my radio, ‘you live you learn / you love you learn … you bleed you learn.’ I sing along, hoping for a time when being a successful and liberated woman will no longer be dictated by a jagged little pill and a willing disconnect from my female bodily flows.
Image: Pildora lighht / Wikimedia