Personal experience is always the best way of learning, especially when it comes to being a woman, so apologies in advance for the disturbing content in this post. I always assumed that sexism occurred in the workplace, in the household and in clubs and bars, but I never actually realised that its prominence takes place right here in our own bodies and on our own accord. When we take a closer look at contraception in a socio-cultural context, we can learn more about ideas of femininity and nature in general. None of this is to say we should blame the men for the duress that women endure nor is it to argue that we should stop having sex but my aim is to simply raise awareness for the dangers that we are so predisposed to accept so that we can work towards a fairer and safer system of prevention in the future.
From the age of 16, I started taking the contraceptive pill given by my local GP. It was a simple pop in, measure your weight and blood pressure and before you know it you would be walking out of the clinic with a prescription for a pill that you would naievly take every day without even questioning what it was doing to your body. And why? Well because I wanted to make sure I was doing everything in my power to please the guy that I was with at the time and because I wouldn’t dare rely on him to ensure safe sex. At the time I felt nothing but empowered about taking such initiative, which gave me a newfound independence by taking control of my body in ways I had never done before.
After getting fed up with taking a pill almost everyday and the mood swings that came along with it, I decided to get a Mirena coil fitted. After insisting I wanted a non-hormonal copper coil I was convinced by the sexual health advisor that the Mirena was the better option. My parents were slightly concerned about this method of contraception, as generally it is offered to older women who have already had children. But they were respectful of my decision as I was 19-years old. The implementation was unexpectedly painful and I was leaving the clinic no more than ten minutes later with what felt like contractions. My body was simply trying to reject this foreign body that had been placed inside one of the most sensitive places in a woman’s body – her womb. In hindsight, I should have done more research into it but I was told not to believe the ‘coil stories’ online.
I bled for a few weeks after and experienced dizzy spells for days. After the initial symptoms passed and the coil was settled, my periods slowly stopped, my boobs became bigger and my temper shortened to an unhealthy threshold. Of course, my body was being fed an excess of hormones to prevent pregnancy; in short, my uterine lining stopped renewing and started to release chemicals that killed off sperm. My coil also released levonorgestrel, a hormone that thickens the mucus inside the cervix which prevents sperm from entering the uterus and reduces the chances of the receiving fertilised egg. When you actually think about what these hormones are doing to our natural cycles you begin to realise how crazy it is that we continue to do everything we can to prevent the most miraculous bodily functions from occurring.
I was protected from pregnancy and didn’t have a period for two years. I thought I loved the coil and I recommended it to everyone who asked but it later became clear that the hormonally-induced emotional changes I was experiencing, had become apparent in my relationship and caused ruptures between my boyfriend and I at the time. After we broke up, I began to experience physical complications with the coil too. A lot of what I’m about to describe might be too graphic and too personal, but I don’t think the point of why I’m telling this story will be as clear without doing so, so apologies in advance.
Around Christmas of 2016 I got thrush. After trying every medical and natural home remedy it unusually continued to worsen. I spent Christmas day in agony and locked away in my room for the most part of it. On top of that, a couple of weeks later I developed BV. This was also gross and the constant swings of imbalances became frustrating to say the least. After six weeks of pain, tests at the STI clinic, visits to my GP and multiple courses of antibiotics, I began to bleed and swell and I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
I again visited my GP where the nurse tested me to determine what what going on down there. My results came back negative. On the same day I visited the local NHS sexual health clinic where my swab results for bacterial vaginosis came back positive. In short, nothing was adding up and nothing was being diagnosed with certainty. Whilst at the NHS sexual health clinic, the nurse also prescribed me with the treatment for trichomoniasis (an STI that isn’t generically tested in standard sexual health screenings). I hadn’t been tested for this infection, but she gave me the treatment anyways for precaution. The treatment consisted of 5 large antibiotics pills to be taken all at once. Taking them made me extremely dizzy, nauseous and bed bound for a couple of days.
On top of the pharmaceutical route, I also looked into various natural at-home remedies including eating yoghurts with live cultures, rubbing coconut and tea tree oils into the irritated areas and soaking in apple cider vinegar. I also sought remedies and advice from a homeopath, but even she warned me of the sheer importance of a woman’s reproductive system and urged me to return to my GP for a referral.
Nothing changed and my symptoms only worsened. Tired of shoving concoctions of medications down and in me, I took my homeopath’s advice and returned to my GP. At this point, I was finally referred to a private gynaecologist. The private route was great. I was seen quickly and examinations were thorough. Unfortunately, most patients will have to wait on the NHS for a minimum of 6 weeks before seeing a specialist or getting an unscheduled smear test. After all these tests and examinations it turned out that I had a severe infection caused by my coil which had allowed it to spread upon through my cervix. It had caused a lot of blistering and swelling and prevented the effectiveness of the remedies I had previously tried. I was prescribed alternative antibiotics and a course of steroids. The infection subsided but other problems arose.
My smear tests results came back showing that I had one of the high risk HPV strains that increase the chances of producing pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. Before rumours spread that I’m infectious and to stay well clear of me its important to know that HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. I’d previously had the Gardasil vaccine that protects against the two types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancers but there are multiple high risk strains that are still easily contracted.
I was shocked to find out that HPV is sexually transmitted, but even more surprised to find out that unless you have a smear test there is no alternative way of testing for it. Cervical screening is offered from the age of 25 from the NHS in the UK so unless you have the money to go private or some sort of emergency reason to be referred then you have little chance of even finding out whether you’re a carrier until a later date. Luckily, there were no abnormal cells found in my results but some are not always so lucky. I remember a few years ago there was a lot of attention around the issue of cervical screening age criteria but this seems to have subdued in more recent times.
My scan showed that I had a cyst on my right ovary which was probably causing some of my bleeding and discomfort and had to be monitored for the following months after. My gynaecologist said it was likely that the coil was partly to be blamed as the stopping of monthly periods often can result the unsuccessful expulsion of an egg, which in turn, can develop into a cyst on the ovary.
All in all it took about 5 months to clear up. The root cause was the coil, but this whole ‘road to recovery’ exposed to me a lot of the dangers of contraception and sexual health in general. It also made clear the prominent issues associated with the NHS and the pressures women put themselves under in protecting themselves against pregnancy. Although my vagina has now restored its balance and I no longer feed my body with an excess of artificial hormones that make me a bit crazy I cannot help but feel a worry about the potential damage years of contraception has done to my fertility as I continue approach an age where children is becoming more of a fathomable prospect.
I say that allowing yourself to become submissive to conventional contraception is one of the most anti-feminist things you can do as a woman, because you consciously disregard the most definitive and powerful functions of the female body, often (not always) out of a desire to please and help out the man you are sexually encountered with. This is not to say that women should stop taking contraceptives, but being aware of its effects should be at the forefront of these decisions, and should be encouraged more so by the medical practitioners the public tend to rely on so much. Alternatives do exist and hopefully men can more commonly become more empathetic towards such issues women face as we continue to speak out about them. A woman’s reproductive system and fertility lay at the base of humanity, and should not be taken advantage of in the ways that they recently have been.
Written by Christie Chapman