Birth Control for Both of Us
by Aneesa Davenport
illustration by Liz Harris
THE FIRST TIME I had sex, crashing in a friend’s guest bedroom, I didn’t tell my parents that my boyfriend was there too. We hadn’t planned ahead, so we ended up making a late-night run to the 24-hour drug store for condoms. The clerk called across the desolate aisles for a price check, of course, while we waited speechlessly. That boyfriend taught me to be responsible—he even showed me how to tie a condom so the semen wouldn’t spill, and advised me not to trust any guy who didn’t do this. He didn’t, however, properly dispose of the wrapper, and the next day I was dragged into an excruciating conversation with my friend’s mother in which I was stabbed with shame and obliged to deny everything. My boyfriend had intended to step up and take responsibility for our birth control that night, but it turned out to be the first time the particulars of being safe were primarily up to me.
We learn when we’re young to use condoms, but for couples in long-term relationships, they soon become outmoded. Condoms are laborious to use and generally decrease pleasure; once you stop using them, it’s hard to go back, the way it’s hard to move out of the apartment or break off an engagement and then continue dating—you’re fumbling and retreating to the guest bedroom when you should be honest and up close. Young adults in long-term relationships are therefore more likely to get their blood tested and then use the pill, patch, injection or intrauterine device (IUD), forms of hormonal and non-hormonal contraception which require a prescription, injection or implantation.
In college, I lived in households full of girls who displayed their fourth-week “reminder” pills on the coffee table in candy dishes, influenced the timing of my period, and complained about turning into bitches. I dated a guy who, after several failed attempts, admitted that we probably weren’t going to have sex unless we stopped trying to use condoms. I was on the pill within a month.
I was warned about mood swings and depression, both of which are common and sometimes tough-to-spot side effects of hormonal contraception. I was told I might experience them immediately, or after a few months, for the first three months, or continuously. I learned that such side effects could force me to switch brands of oral contraception. However, I wasn’t prepared to diagnose myself. Also, having grown up with jokes about PMS, I was wary of blaming my emotions or behavior on hormones. I recognized changes in my body before and during my period, but I became so accustomed to defending myself against PMS that I was surprised to learn that it actually exists, and that the physical symptoms, which I couldn’t ignore, are as much a part of it as the emotional symptoms. This indoctrination against the very concept of PMS was the first reason I couldn’t recognize the pill’s side effects. I wasn’t acting any bitchier than usual, so I was OK. My boyfriend, having also been raised around riot grrrls and third-wave feminism, was equally self-conscious about the issue. For him to even suspect that natural or unnatural hormones were affecting my moods—which seems so obvious now—would have been a turn-around from everything he’d learned about how to communicate with women. Instead, he blamed the relationship and himself, and saw no solution to the problem.
In my early 20s, like most at that age, I was plagued with indecision accompanied by breakups, heartbreaks, move-ins and -outs, move-aways, reunions, long-distance relationships, joblessness and new jobs, and homesickness. One roommate asked me to hide her meds from her so she wouldn’t take too many in the night, and another, the next year, tried to take his life. I tried to hold down a job that made me so anxious I felt nauseous every Monday morning, while taking calls to come home and clean up the blood. I reluctantly finished college, and when my boyfriend got into grad school I moved away from my family and friends to support him despite my envy. Of course I’m more emotional during these great changes, I thought, but no matter how logically I looked at it, I couldn’t match my feelings to my circumstances.
I took the pill for two years, and I cried for half that time. Sometimes I felt nothing, the inside of my body a stranger to the outside. I recognized that a harsh word or look could trigger disproportionate sadness, anger, pain and resentment, but I was unable to deny that I really felt them. What made the cause of my mood swings most difficult to identify were all the probable causes for unhappiness.
Regardless, the emotional ups and downs took their toll. The harder my relationship was to maintain, the harder I tried to fix it. Talking it out was impossible, because logic, reason, and even cause and effect seemed inapplicable. Why did such-and-such hurt my feelings? I didn’t know any better than my boyfriend did. Instead, like many desperate people, I hoped physical intimacy could lure our hearts back together. But another possible side effect of birth control (including IUDs) is decreased libido. It was harder to have sex. It wasn’t as good anymore, and sometimes hurt. It was worse to think that we couldn’t connect in that way, so I tended to fake it.
When choosing condoms, the birth control responsibility is often distributed between partners. They make the decision to use them together and accept and deal with the inconveniences or problems together—they get out of bed and drive to Walmart together; they can both see if the condom breaks. But the responsibility for other forms of contraception falls more heavily on the woman, and the repercussions of pregnancy or other medical complications, of course, also fall more heavily on her. Every time my period was late, I worried, which I suspect tensed me up enough to make it even later. But the impact of simply using birth control hits both parties, often unbeknownst to them. The pill, for example, is designed to make relationships easier and safer, but when its side effects are hard to diagnose and easy to misunderstand, it can have the opposite effect.
In my experience, using contraceptives which require more forethought (e.g., a doctor’s prescription) and more constancy (daily doses, quarterly shots, etc.) gives couples the impression that they’re working together more maturely, honestly and openly than if they just opted for the one-off solution of condoms each time they have sex. But unfortunately, our bodies may still embarrass or confuse us into silence or miscommunication when we don’t understand them.
Once external events had settled down to a hum—no more roommates, no more break- ups, no more moves—it became clear that they weren’t the cause of my constant drum of sadness, now neither spiking nor sinking. My boyfriend suggested I go into therapy (easier said than done without health insurance), but even when I suspected I was reacting to the pill, there didn’t seem to be an obvious solution. If I switched brands, how many would I have to try (friends had gone through several) and how long would each take to affect me? (Also, a history of being hurt and shamed by rude emergency-room physicians whom I saw for urinary tract infections and kidney problems dissuaded me from going back to a doctor for a new prescription.) How would I know if the pill was the cause of my symptoms? Mostly, I worried that it was already difficult to be with my boyfriend, so how could I go off my contraception?
I did not fully realize the implications of my choices—that choosing a method of birth control is a decision a couple must make repeatedly throughout their relationship, as their relationship and their bodies change. Regardless of how old we are when we start taking contraceptives, if it’s our first time it’s our first time: We’ll never know what to expect of ourselves, no matter how many warnings and raves we know by heart. When I was first caught having sex, I was young enough to try to deny it, and in a way I continued to deny the full effects of my sexual relationships for years after, even to myself.
Although there have been developments in oral contraceptive methods or contraceptive injections, implants or vaccines for men, their reliability is even more uncertain than their viability. If only 28 percent of women on the pill always take it correctly, can we trust our male partners to do any better? If he accidentally skipped a pill, would your partner tell you? Regardless, these types of male contraception would again separate lovers instead of offering us an equal and shared contraceptive plan, in which our bodies are respected and better known to ourselves and to each other. For now, though, while women in long-term heterosexual relationships still bear the greater burden of contraception, the best we can hope for is an awareness that what affects a woman also affects her partner. Both partners are responsible for the internal and external manifestations of their decisions.
Aneesa Davenport is a graduate student at the California College of the Arts.