A review of Holly Grigg-Spall’s Sweetening the Pill: How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Available to pre-order here.
“We can read about how the release of the pill changed the fight for women’s liberation or changed women’s position in society, but not how it changed women.”
Sweetening the Pill or How We got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control is a new book out in September 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall published by Zer0 Books. It is a very easy and enjoyable read and it’s a book that will spark controversy not just amongst feminists, but also on the left more generally.
Although it is not the first book questioning the use of hormonal birth control, Sweetening the Pill has the potential of opening up a debate which is often silenced on the liberal left: Are contemporary hormonal contraceptives really as liberating as we think, or are they instead a patriarchal and capitalist tool employed to discipline and control women and their bodies?
Sweetening the Pill is a critical engagement with the otherwise normative act of taking hormonal contraceptive which includes the pill, patch, IUD, ring and the implant. Talking not only from personal experience, but also taking into account a vast number of women sharing their experience with hormonal birth control online, Grigg-Spall argues that hormonal contraceptives causes a wide range of physical and psychological health issues such as paranoia, anxiety, increased risk of cancers, liver impairment, changes in sex drive, depression, blood clots and infertility. Although some medical jargon is needed to present these arguments, you are not left with the impression that you are drowning in the disorientating sea of medical science.
Grigg-Spall presents us with an argument against what she calls the ‘misogynistic medical understanding of female biology’. Often from a very young age women, unaware about the (side)effects, are put on the pill by their GP often due to non-contraceptive matters such as acne, period pains or heavy periods, which in fact there are other and more effective ways of curing. Perhaps, more than anything, going on the pill is understood as a rite of passage into adulthood: ‘Congratulations, you are finally a Woman!’
As Grigg-Spall points out quoting Nelly Oudshoorn ‘scientists do not operate independently or outside of a social or political context’. The context in which their claim is made relevant is actively chosen or created. From the assumption that men have a relatively stable hormone levels and women unpredictable and erratic hormone levels, it is understood that it is women who are abnormal and should be medicated so that they can be more stable – more “manly”. Although hormonal contraception is developed for men, this is viewed as an infraction of ‘manliness’ and therefore not, whereas women are almost more ‘womanly’ when they do not ovulate.
Ovulating in Racist, Patriarchal Capitalism
Grigg-Spall questions why (the woman of) contemporary Western society seemingly is so ‘addicted’ to hormonal contraceptives. She sets out to understand this in the wider context of late capitalist production, patriarchal social structures and neoliberalism. Ovulating and menstruating bodies are understood as unproductive and wasteful whereas a body that does not ‘leak’ (such as what is understood as the male body) is much better suited for success in consumer society.
We learn there is a healthy capitalist interest in prescribing hormonal contraceptives. Not only is it more cost-effective on a national scale to provide long-term solutions that do not require consistent appointments, but GP’s and pharmaceuticals cash in on the continued demand for hormonal contraceptives. In fact, the birth control pill alone is a $22 billion a year industry.
It is further argued that this patriarchal and capitalist demand for hormonal contraceptives have a real devastating effect on poor women and women in developing countries who are recruited to fix the problem of overpopulation. The implant and injection are popular for these women because they increase compliance and are cheaper. Although it is known that some of these methods of contraception double the risk of acquisition of HIV and these women still experience horrible side effect, they are often denied to have the implant removed.
It is through these arguments Grigg-Spall presents us with the most radical arguments of Sweetening the Pill. She takes the position not of making menstruation fit into capitalist society, but to challenge patriarchy and capitalism by menstruating. Although Sweetening the Pill has bitter-sweet reminiscences of the oh-so-free-flower-power-days and its utopian socialism, especially when describing menstrual clubs in the woods, it is an enlightening journey into the politics of menstruation and it’s relation to capitalist production and reproduction.
“Woman” and The Menstruating Body
What is always problematic in any contemporary feminist work is the uncritical use of the word ‘woman’ and ‘man’ . A lot of women do not menstruate and some trans*men menstruate too. Although there are times when it seems like Sweetening the Pill is embracing womanhood a little too much, we are made aware that its politics is queer inclusive. Although it is not employed consistently, Grigg-Spall does make use of the term ‘menstruators’ instead of ‘woman’, which serves not only to include trans*men, but also to rid ourselves of the ideological-cultural baggage that is entrenched in the term ‘woman’.
Grigg-Spall is clear, however, that in regards to the pill, we need to talk about ‘women’, precisely because ‘[it] is integral to how and why the pill came to exist and why it is still taken by so many women’. She argues that women often go on the pill not only to prevent pregnancy (in some cases not at all), but to enhance certain physical attributes breast size or perfected flawless ‘doll-like’ skin. Perhaps the initial purpose of hormonal contraceptives were based on a feminist politics, but Grigg-Spall demands us to question the use of them in contemporary society, where, more than ever, they seem to support anti-feminist causes.
The Red Revolution
As most other publications by Zer0 Books, Sweetening the Pill is a fairly short read covering only a total of 177 pages. Nevertheless, Grigg-Spall manages to include a range of subjects such as philosophy, politics, feminism, religion, anthropology and science.
There are times when Sweetening the Pill can get a bit repetitive and times when a more thorough analysis is to be desired if only to make the arguments even stronger or further the theoretical terrain. However, considering the aim is to present a short anti-intellectual piece which is accessible to the layman, it works well. If anything, by resisting heavy theoretical analysis, Sweetening the Pill is a book that calls for a more consistent relation between theory and praxis.
Grigg-Spall introduces the reader to the non-cooperate contraception method FAM (Fertility Awareness Method), which she argues, can empower the feminist movement by encouraging women to take control over their own bodies. Sweetening the Pill is neither a medical manual on contraceptive methods nor a new feminist manifesto and it leaves you with a wanting for more. However, it opens up for a debate on these issues that have been silenced for too long and it does so persuasively. I, for one, have now ditched the hormonal contraceptives and welcome the red revolution.
Malise is a Danish feminist based in London. She graduated from an MA course in philosophy and contemporary critical theory at Kingston University in 2012, specialising in sex and gender and materialist feminism. She is currently a freelance writer on feminist issues for various media.