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The Pill: What It Means To Me 2006-11-27

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Health, Scotland.
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Next Monday is the 45th anniversary of the Pill becoming available on the NHS: a milestone in the history of women’s liberation. It undoubtedly prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies, and the social problems that can result from them. But what has been its full impact on female lives, and its legacy for our sexual health? Anna Smyth meets five women who talk openly and frankly about the revolutionary oral contraceptive.

‘Women find it harder to insist that men use other protection’

HELEN RAW, actress and singer, 32

I went on the Pill when I was 16 because I had a lot of problems with my periods, and together with my mum and my doctor, decided it was the best option. I was very embarrassed about going on it: I didn’t want the doctor to think I was sleeping around or that I would be using it for contraception, and I definitely didn’t want any of my peers to find out.

There was an entirely different attitude back then; it wasn’t the status symbol that it is now. Many young girls these days seem quite happy for people to know they’re using it, and to assume it’s for sexual reasons, whereas back then I was horrified by the thought.

Young people seem so blasé about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and many assume that if they get into trouble, someone else will fix it. It is a terrible attitude, but I believe it stems from the wider problem that people have abdicated responsibility for themselves.

It’s harder for women now to insist that men use some other form of protection, because they are so used to the idea of women being on the Pill. But I think if you were with someone who refused to use any other method of contraception, you would have to wonder about their motives. Some men take their responsibility less seriously because of oral contraceptives — I have known men who just want to go out and get as much female booty as they can and simply don’t care about the consequences. But I also know many others who are careful and respectful.

If [doctors] are going to hand out the Pill indiscriminately to women under 20, they need to provide proper education on the other risks involved, and monitor the women properly afterwards.
‘At last, we could take control’

SUSAN MORRISON, radio presenter and comedienne, 47

The Pill was the single greatest invention of the 20th century. It had a tremendous social impact; it tore society apart. I know it’s had its fair share of critics, but the Pill freed women. Until women were safely freed from [unwanted] child-bearing, we weren’t truly liberated. At last, women could take control and plan when, or if, they wanted to have children.

It has been blamed for the increase in sexually transmitted infections, but if you look at the death rates from syphilis in the 18th century, they were extremely high. There is no doubt that women turned towards the Pill because they could make a choice for themselves, but it is not the reason we have such a high STI rate today.

I have a 16-year-old daughter, and from very early on I discussed the Pill with her, and what protection it gives. But I did also say that there is a place for condoms in protecting against disease.

I don’t think having discussions with your children at a young age encourages early sexual promiscuity, I think that has far more to do with the way children are brought up. I have always believed that the best contraception for a woman is ambition. If she has plans and dreams, a baby won’t factor early on, and if [she] understands that, [she] will act to prevent it.
‘It’s all too easy to just pop a pill’

EVELYN HAMILTON, managing director, 33

I have never taken the Pill, and the reason I didn’t is because I feel strongly that it’s all too easy to ‘just pop a pill’ and do what you want nowadays.

I don’t see it as a natural, conscious way to live. I’ve also read that the volume of chemicals being secreted into the water system by ‘Pill-takers’ is having an adverse effect on sperm count. I don’t believe our bodies are meant to ingest chemicals such as these on a regular basis.

The Pill has definitely made women less conscious of sexual health risks, especially when they’ve been drinking. I know many seemingly sensible women who throw caution to the wind.

I think women can educate themselves about the risks, if they choose to do so. The information is there if you look for it. When I was growing up nobody told me about it, neither parents nor school. I believe it may be different now.

It’s difficult to say whether the Pill has been an overall success when it comes to women’s sexual liberation. There are many aspects to sexual freedom. I’m sure that the Pill has played a key part in relaxing attitudes to sex and preventing unwanted pregnancies, but is the pendulum starting to swing too far?
‘I didn’t trust it fully…’

EMILY LEONARD, trainee lawyer, 26

I was on the Pill for five years, but came off four years ago because it didn’t suit me. I went on it because I wanted to take control of my contraception, and at the time I wasn’t really offered anything else. That has changed now, but ten years ago there didn’t seem to be as much choice.

I was mainly concerned about the risk of pregnancy, as I was in a long-term relationship and STIs weren’t a worry. But I wasn’t completely comfortable — both of my sisters got pregnant while they were on the Pill, so I didn’t trust it fully.

A lot of women my age seem to think it covers them for everything; they are not clued-up about STIs and worry about pregnancy far more than [they do about] getting an infection. That seems ridiculous to me, as there is so much education about risks these days.

It’s fair to say that many women tend to follow their peers and go with the contraception they’ve heard that others use. I was surprised when I went to the Family Planning Association to ask about alternatives, as the other women I knew had just chosen the Pill. I am now on a different form of long-lasting protection and it suits me much better, but I am not sure that all women are informed about the options as some of them are more expensive [for the NHS] to provide than the Pill.

I definitely prefer being able to take preemptive steps to protect myself, and being on the Pill is obviously better than no contraception at all, but I think too many women rely on it, and even then, if you don’t take the Pill correctly, your protection [against pregnancy] is not guaranteed.
‘Men feel they are less responsible’

SUZANNE SHINNIE, director of an IT firm, 32

I went on the Pill because it made contraception easy. I was in a long-term relationship and had got past the point of worrying about my sexual health.

But I would say the Pill makes people much less cautious in general. As a teenager you are bombarded with sex-education messages and warnings about the risks of promiscuity, but, as you get older, those messages drop off. I would say that, for most women, pregnancy is the biggest concern, but as we age we tend to think it won’t happen.

As we move into our twenties, we go beyond the point of talking about contraception with our girlfriends. We quite happily talk about sex and relationships, but the friends I’ve made as an adult are far less open about discussing matters like the Pill or condoms. I think you assume that everyone knows enough about them to make the right decision.

Men seem to feel they are less responsible because of the Pill, or at least assume that most women are on it, therefore they needn’t worry. When I speak to male friends, it seems that, although most will use a condom if forced to, they are reluctant to use anything in addition to the Pill.

I think it has changed society’s views on sex: it is now possible to tell your parents you are sleeping with a partner, because you can assure them you are being responsible and not risking your career or future with an unwanted pregnancy. Its knock-on effect has been to make sexual relationships seem normal.

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