PODCAST: Sweetening the Pill: Have we failed to be sufficiently critical of hormonal birth control?

In this episode, I speak with Holly Grigg-Spall, the author of Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. In the book, she looks at women’s experiences with the birth control pill, asking why, while millions

of women take it every day, few really know how this drug works or the potential side effects.

Has the feminist movement been insufficiently critical of hormonal birth control? Listen below.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Great interview. Quibble with your wording though, and I think this is crucial to the whole debate:

    Pregnancy doesn’t enslave women. Pregnancy has never enslaved women. Men enslave women, often through pregnancy and the threat of pregnancy.

    The entire mainstream feminist view on contraception posits women’s natural biology as the enemy of women’s liberation – that’s why something like the pill can be seen as liberatory. And yet, they don’t query why the sexual norm should be unlimited amounts of penetrative sex – and why this should be considered the definition of sex, the rest just foreplay.

    Penetration is riskier for women. That is a biological fact. It’s intrinsically unequal. Women have more risk of sexually transmitted diseases and other forms of bodily injury, even aside from the pregnancy risk. Women often do not enjoy it, or not as much as other sexual acts. Even if they do, it does not change the risk aspect.

    If the pill liberated women, why aren’t women such us yourself, and myself, who don’t take it, now horribly more oppressed?

    The pill liberated men’s dicks more than it ever liberated women. Preventing pregnancy in a situation where women are unable to say no to sex or unable to enforce condom use isn’t liberation. It’s making the best of a very oppressive situation.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “If the pill liberated women, why aren’t women such us yourself, and myself, who don’t take it, now horribly more oppressed?”

      That is an interesting point. I mean, I suppose there are many other women who found the pill extremely liberating. Me, not so much…

  • Blue

    Thank you for this interview!

    I am one of those people who’s had very bad experiences with the pill, and other hormonal birth controls as well. I think it’s really important to have a space were women can discuss these issues.
    Sometimes you can feel very isolated because you don’t know if there is something wrong with you or what the correlation is with the contraception you are using (as pointed out by the author). Furthermore, birth control and negative experiences with it can make you feel very anxious around sex.

    Another problem is I think that there is a lack of information when it comes to contraception, as well as sex. I agree with the comment above (and would have liked to hear your interview touch on this), we need to redefine what sex as something much broader than simply penis penetrating vagina. I feel like moving away from defining sex simply as penetration would take so much of the anxiety away, and the pressure on using birth control and being “always available” in that way.

    Finally, people are not always available to have any kind of sex! Sometimes you don’t feel like it, and it can last for days and even weeks. I think this is normal, but again, there is no room to have these discussions with people… at least not without it being super awkward, but I wish there was. But this is moving a bit away from the topic.

  • Ash

    You’d think it would be obvious that feminists, particularly those concerned with the critique of bio-medicine’s authority over women’s lives, to examine a pill prescribed only to women that significantly alter women’s hormone levels and activities. I should try and do some research and see if i can find anything on the side-effects. I wonder why there isn’t a similar option available to men…..

  • Thanks for this informative podcast. I’ll be getting the book. I understand the importance of the pill to many women and have used it myself but in a society where increasingly many of us question even the side effects of painkillers, we really should be paying much more attention to all the side effects of the pill

  • Me

    I read your pull out article and thought I’d drop a mention of the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler.

    You’ve probably read it already, or something else presenting the same ideas about following the ovulation cycle: the changes in body temp and in cervical fluid that go along with it. Anyway I thought it was a good book.

    Ha, a funny thing in my past long-term relationship was that once a month I’d suddenly find myself very active or aroused for a few days. It turned out that was always when my partner would be ovulating and when we couldn’t have unprotected intercourse. Even though I would never go by it unless the goal was a fertilized egg, I’m quite sure there was something about her ovulation that I could smell.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks! Will check it out.