by Brigid Taylor
I remember when I first heard of “natural” birth control in high school. See, I went to an all-girls Catholic high school where sex ed consisted of years of religion classes which taught me that premarital sex makes you impure, and that contraception and abortion are evil. We learned that the only acceptable means of contraception (for when pregnancy would be harmful to the wife’s health) was the “rhythm method” or “natural family planning.” My teachers explained that women can avoid sex during their fertile time, which is the middle of the menstrual cycle or day 14 for most women.
As a teenager with 35-40 day cycles this made no sense to me. I asked adults in my life about it and was told that the rhythm method didn’t work, and that it was only used by very conservative Catholics (for whom it then didn’t work). Oh, ok. I wasn’t having sex anyway so it really didn’t matter.
So when I did start having sex, using the rhythm method for contraception never crossed my mind. All I ever heard or read about “fertility awareness” when I came across it was that it had a high failure rate. That seemed to be all anyone had to say about it-it didn’t work. Have you heard this “joke”?
“What do you call people who practice fertility awareness for birth control?”
Yeah, that’s the typical attitude of most people towards fertility awareness for birth control. But actually, what a lot of people “know” about fertility awareness is wrong. Like how there are actually several types of contraception methods that use various aspects of fertility awareness. The rhythm method is one of the simplest of these methods, and it does have a high failure rate. Although they are often described as the same thing, the fertility awareness method is not the rhythm method. The rhythm method, also known as the Calendar Method, relies on the idea that a woman’s fertile days can be mathematically predicted based on her past cycles. While tracking cycle dates is also important in the fertility awareness method, the method is SO much more than that!
To make it short, with the fertility awareness method (FAM) a woman observes her primary fertility signs-her basal body temperature, her cervical mucus, and her cervix. This requires daily observation and recording since your cycle is unique to you-you may not ovulate on the same day each cycle and you probably won’t ovulate on the same day as your friend. Claims about the high failure rate of FAM often look at the statistics when the method is used incorrectly or inconsistently. According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, “With correct and consistent use of fertility awareness–based methods, the failure rate is 0.4 to 5 percent. With typical use, the failure rate is as high as 24 percent.”
But it looks like the number of people who use FAM incorrectly is pretty high, so doesn’t that mean that the method doesn’t work? Well something isn’t working, but maybe it’s not the method. Maybe the real failure is how women are taught (or not taught) about our bodies.
For most of my menstruating years I never even bothered to write down my cycle dates. No one ever told me it was a good idea to think about my cycles, other than to say that I should always have a pad on me in case my period started. And I don’t know about most women, but observing my cervical mucus was not something I was taught to do growing up. That would involve touching…down there! And for a Catholic school girl who was taught the evils of masturbation this was a no-no! And as for actually feeling inside my vagina to find my cervix, forget about it! A baby had passed through my cervix before I ever got up the nerve to try and feel it myself.
Fertility awareness as birth control is often called natural family planning when it is taught in a religious (primarily Catholic) context, and it is meant for married couples. But it’s not enough to give women this information just for preventing (or achieving) pregnancy within marriage! We need to teach women from an early age about how their bodies work. Such knowledge is important for women and girls even when they are not sexually active, as Toni Weschler, author of Taking Charge of Your Fertility notes, “…even if you have no interest in using the method for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, it is an empowering means of taking control of your gynecological health.”
When we teach girls and women that their bodies are disgusting, mysterious, or impure, how can they learn about them? We teach women that it is best for them to be strangers to their own bodies, leaving them in the capable hands of doctors for their health and male partners for their pleasure. If a woman is not in tune with her individual fertility signs, how can she use them to avoid becoming pregnant? When we fail to teach about communication and consent in sexual relationships, how can we expect a woman to be able to negotiate about contraception with her partner? Avoidance of sex on her fertile days or the use of barrier methods on those days will be difficult if she does not have true control over when and how she has sex.
Our society sets women up for failure when it comes to fertility awareness methods for contraception, and yet women are told that it’s the method that doesn’t work. We are told that our bodies don’t work in that way and require outside intervention to achieve our health goals. And this isn’t just with fertility awareness. Women are told all of the time that their bodies “don’t work.” Some examples:
“Your cycles are too irregular, you need to go on the pill.”
“Your pelvis is too small for you to give birth vaginally, you need a c-section.”
“You’ll never make enough milk for your baby, you’ll have to supplement with formula.”
The go-to solution that “oh, your body just doesn’t work” fails to consider underlying causes that could be addressed by less drastic methods, or that may actually indicate larger problems. Our society’s negative language surrounding the female body becomes ingrained in us and we start to believe that our bodies really don’t work! Well maybe our bodies don’t always “work” in supporting a patriarchal agenda, but when women are taught to understand and value their bodies, they actually tend to work just fine. Who’d have thought it?!?