Category Archives: sexism

Birth Control: Women vs. Men, Then vs. Now

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Debbie says:


Bethy Squires, writing at Broadly,  pulls together historical and current information about “The Racist and Sexist History of keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret.”

In September, JAMA Psychiatry published a Danish study that found a correlation between the use of hormonal birth control and being diagnosed with clinical depression. The study tracked hormonal birth control use and prescription of antidepressants over six years for over a million women. They found that women who were on hormonal birth control—be it the pill or a hormonal IUD or vaginal ring—were significantly more likely to be prescribed antidepressants.

The study found a particularly strong correlation between teenage birth control users and depression: there was an 80 percent increase in risk for teens taking birth control to start taking antidepressants after going on the pill. This statistic is particularly troubling, especially as many teen girls are prescribed the pill before they’re even sexually active—sometimes to treat acne or severe menstrual symptoms, and sometimes just as a general, preventative measure. “It was seen as an essential thing to do,” says [Holly] Grigg-Spall [author of Sweetening the Pill, “It was more of a rite of passage.”

Even if you are a hardened cynic, the history of female birth control will disturb you. In the 1950s and the 1960s, women in mental asylums in Massachusetts, women in medical school in Puerto Rico, were forced to try the Pill with no information, including what it was for. Later, women in the slums of Puerto Rico took it voluntarily after being told what it was supposed to do, but without being told they were part of a clinical study. The emphasis on Puerto Rico is, of course, racist. No women on the Pill were told about any risk of side effects, and the first version was released into the marketplace despite the director of the Puerto Rico Family Planning Commission concluding that the side effects were too extreme.

There’s a lot more in Squires’ piece, including how much we owe early birth-control activists for what we are told about drug side effects today. And then there’s this tidbit:

Incidentally, [biologist Gregory] Pincus et al. had originally looked at hormonal birth control for men. “It was rejected for men due to the number of side effects,” says Grigg-Spall, “including testicle shrinking.” It was believed women would tolerate side effects better than men, who demanded a better quality of life.

So here we are in 2016, and Susan Scutti, writing for CNN, relates the state of a promising male contraceptive trial:

A new hormonal birth control shot for men effectively prevented pregnancy in female partners, a new study found.

The study, co-sponsored by the United Nations and published Thursday in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, tested the safety and effectiveness of a contraceptive shot in 320 healthy men in monogamous relationships with female partners. Conducted at health centers around the world, enrollment began on a rolling basis in September 2008. The men, who ranged in age from 18 to 45, underwent testing to ensure that they had a normal sperm count at the start.

The procedure worked very well, but:

 … due to side effects, particularly depression and other mood disorders, the researchers decided in March 2011 to stop the study earlier than planned, with the final participants completing in 2012.

Scutti also mentions the Danish study and the connection between female hormonal birth control and depression.

So, more than 50 years after a drug went to market despite large numbers of test subjects reporting depression and serious physical symptoms, we’re seeing a clinical trial being cancelled because some participants are reporting depression (and there was some decrease in fertility).

Depression is important, real, and deserves attention. A finding that a drug causes depression is a fine reason to re-evaluate a clinical trial. FOR EVERYONE. It’s impossible to say whether the UN study was halted because the participants were men, or because we live in a different world, with more respect for people in clinical trials, than we had all those decades ago. (If it is even partly because of the different world, that’s due to the work of the early women birth control activists, and the later great work of AIDS patients advocating for their voices in study design.)

Neither author quoted here raises a key question about male hormonal contraception: would you trust a man who told you he wasn’t fertile? Why? There are good feminist reasons to want birth control (other than condoms) to remain the domain of women. There are good health reasons to prioritize barrier methods over hormonal ones. And everything has risks.

Looking at these two stories together tells us that we need transparency in drug trials; we need patient voices in decision-making (“nothing about us without us”) and we need to know the truth about what we’re putting in our bodies, and what the trade-offs are.

Today in Intersectionality: Disability, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and More

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Debbie says:


Once we get Intersectional theory into our framework of thought, it crops up absolutely everywhere. Intersectionality is the concept that we are best served by looking at overlapping (i.e., intersecting) identities and “related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.” Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who first coined the term in 1989, would be interested in these two posts:

First, Andrew Gurza, writing at the Huffington Post, connects the dots of queerness, disability, and depression:

When I was a young disabled kid, I was told by everyone around me to speak up for myself, and to go after what I want. I learned that I had to do this, to be seen and be heard; to be taken seriously as a disabled person, I had to be obtuse about it. I had tried to apply this same principle of directness to dating dudes while disabled. I was dismayed to learn, almost every time, that asking for what I wanted, standing up for myself as a young queer cripple, didn’t work in this arena. I was knocked down by ableism time and time again. Each time, the guy couching his ableist rhetoric in “unawareness” and “honesty.” They would tell me that they were telling me the truth, and being real with me about how my disability affected them. They’d say this in easy tones, as if I should be thankful to them for hurting me. They could care less about how their words affected me, leaving a scar bigger than the last.

This kind of subversive ableism that runs rampant in our community is not okay. It is dangerous and divisive. Moreover, the disabled individual dealing with this has nowhere to turn. No one to talk to. Our friends, no matter how kind or empathetic, “just don’t get it”, and therapists are ineffectual, and altogether financially inaccessible to the queer cripple. C’mon, would you want to pay $150 an hour to have the person charged with helping you, tell you that they never even thought of how things might affect people in your circumstance? Yeah, didn’t think so.

That last experience happened to him, when he laid bare his issues to a therapist who said, “Oh, I never thought of it like that.” It makes me think of a friend of mine who was discussing BDSM with her therapist, and the therapist, having been trained to believe that all BDSM was simply about power dynamics, said naively, “You mean it hurts?”


Second, Matthew Rosza, writing at Quartz, addresses gender stereotyping and autism diagnosis, also paying some attention to racism. (Warning: lots of out-of-control web ads at the site can take over your browser. But the article is worth some patience.)

“I believe that my experiences as an autistic person has definitely been affected by my gender and race,” says Morenike Giwa Onaiwu of the Autism Women’s Network. “Many characteristics that I possess that are clearly autistic were instead attributed to my race or gender. As a result, not only was I deprived of supports that would have been helpful, I was misunderstood and also, at times, mistreated.” …

“Social awkwardness? Of course not; apparently I’m just rude—like all the stereotypes of ‘sassy’ black women rolling their heads and necks in a circle while firing off some retort,” Onaiwu says. “Lack of eye contact? Apparently I’m a ‘shy girl’ or ‘playing hard to get’ or ‘shifty.’ Or maybe I’m just being respectful and docile because I’m African and direct eye contact might be a faux pas. Sensory overload, or maybe a meltdown? Nope, more like aggression or being a drama queen. Anything but what it really is—an Autistic person being Autistic who happens to be black and happens to be a woman.”

The issue, according to Rosza, can go both ways. Girls can be underdiagnosed, transitioning women can be considered “not feminine enough to transition,” and autistic men can get some degree of acceptance unavailable to women.

“Some of the behaviors displayed by those on the autism spectrum scale seem to be the way many men in patriarchal societies (like ours) conduct themselves,” explains Esther Nelson, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth College. Nelson, who believes her husband’s symptoms are consistent with an ASD diagnosis, has written about the intersection between autism and feminism, especially in terms of relationships. For example, Nelson notes that men who seem “rigid,” aggressive or lacking in empathy may not stand out in the way that women exhibiting the same behavior might. Even people who are aware of autism and are educated to some degree are more inclined to give her spouse a pass for certain negative behaviors.

Kudos to Rosza for bringing in race, gender identity, and various ways privilege expresses itself beyond straightforward sexism. And kudos to both authors for shining a light on intersectional relationships rarely examined.