CYCLE TECHNOLOGIES describes their fertility awareness tools as “brilliantly simple.” Leslie Heyer founded the company in 2002, and since then she has developed the physical and digital means by which women can learn the Standard Days Method of fertility awareness (or SDM). Cycle Beads and the Cycle Beads app — two of Cycle Technologies’ products — are used by hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. Considering the growing interest in fertility awareness apps, I decided to interview Leslie and find out more about how her work has pre-dated and predicted this trend, as well as how Cycle Technologies has been able to reach women in developing nations.
What exactly does Cycle Technologies do?
Our focus is bringing to market effective, easy-to-use, natural reproductive health solutions. We have worked globally, but also here in the U.S. We have done a lot of work in the developing world. It evolved from work we were doing with the Institute of Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, which acted as our research partner through much of this process. They had developed the first method we worked with – the Standard Days Method, which Cycle Beads tools are based on. And from that work we wanted to figure out how to make that method widely available. We took on creating a product.
Cycle Technologies’ work seems to predate many of the fertility awareness apps we are reading more about today. Is that right?
Yes, I think it is an exciting time for the field. The apps are all popping out of the woodwork. And, fortunately, there’s also been a movement towards appreciating that we need to make sure these apps are giving accurate information. Our work definitely predates apps and smart phones. Back then you needed a physical tool, which is where Cycle Beads came from. They’ve continued to be really popular, but now we have moved towards apps. In the U.S., 99.9% of our users have the app, although there are still die-hard beads fans out there.
How many women use the app in the U.S.? How many use them internationally?
We have 100,000 women who have used the apps between the iPhone and the Android. iPhone is 80%-U.S. and Android is about 55%-U.S. For both right now, we skew heavily towards English-speaking countries because the app is currently only in English and Spanish. But in English-speaking countries in Africa, it’s also popular, and in India, and the Philippines. We’re having a real uptake there.
Now, of course, many of the newer apps are trying to divorce what they offer from the idea of the “rhythm method” – asking women to engage in tracking their fertile signs every day to follow what’s often called the Sympto-Thermal Method.
Standard Days Method is different, can you explain how? Where does it fit in?
Just to say that we also work with TwoDay Method and we have another one coming out very, very soon… Our focus has been on streamlining the method and highlighting the easiest-to-identify fertility markers. Certainly there’s value to taking your temperature and looking at your cervical fluid, but when you boil it down, you can plan and prevent pregnancy with more basic information. You don’t have to have that more detailed information, although you can certainly do many other things with that information. For us it’s about meeting a much broader audience and helping women to get started with the concept of fertility awareness. We don’t immediately expect someone to be able to understand temperature shifts and cervical fluid changes.
What kind of effectiveness rates do you see with the Standard Days Method?
It has been found to be over 95% effective with perfect or correct use. 88% effective with typical use. If you compare that to other user-directed methods, it’s very effective. Like with many contraceptive methods, the first three months are when you see failures and see that the person might not be a good candidate for that method. In our case, their cycle needs to be in the right range. Also, for SDM, the fertile period is fixed, so there are 12 days when you are marked as potentially fertile.
Do you feel SDM tools can help women who know very little about their fertility? Can it perhaps introduce the idea that women are not fertile every day? I know this is still shocking information to many.
Cycle Beads is a great educational tool. It’s a great way for women to understand the basics about their cycle. In some programs it is used just as an educational tool, with, say, adolescents. It’s a very easy way for women to understand they can’t get pregnant every single day. It reveals that basic, but important, information. There’s currently a lot of interest in getting teenagers to use IUDs, though – so when we do talk to teenagers about this it’s usually only educational. But it doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 35; most women don’t really understand their cycle. So it’s a great educational tool for all those women.
I’m interested in hearing more about what you’re doing in developing countries. We tend to hear about Depo-Provera, the hormonal birth control shot, being promoted and used in those regions.
A lot of programs in the developing world are now appreciating that resistance to hormonal contraception is even more entrenched in these places, and that they have to get more creative with solutions. This makes them willing to try other methods. That’s really important. They’re appreciating that there’s a real need to be more innovative. We’ve had the Pill and hormonal contraceptives for years and there’s still not been uptake in some places. The fact is that women have not been choosing to use them. They need other options that will work for them. I don’t think women are widely different everywhere, they’re just in different contexts. So their reasons for not using them are not very different – side-effects is the number one reason you see in every context in which women don’t use contraception.
We often hear that women in developing countries need and prefer hormonal methods because of the power relations between men and women. They need resources they don’t have to tell their partners about. How does Cycle Technology fit in with this?
We have heard this a lot. Certainly there are segments of the population for which a natural method is not a great choice. If you’re not able to decide when you’re going to have sex or not, then a natural method isn’t a good choice for you. But what we have seen, though, is that using a method like fertility awareness has changed the dynamic between partners. It’s a very different conversation to have with a partner – to say, “I don’t want to have sex today because I’m really worried about getting pregnant. I’m on this day and I know there’s a real chance I could get pregnant” versus “I don’t want to have sex today because I’m just not sure, I don’t know…” It totally changes that dynamic. In many countries where they did not know how male involvement might play a big part in this, there’s been real interest. An example: when Cycle Beads were originally launched in Benin, there was a big promotion around letting women know about this new natural method. What they weren’t expecting is that men lined up outside the clinic to get the Cyclebeads for their wives. It’s a Muslim country and women weren’t coming to the clinic. Men wanted to take it home. They had to change the whole protocol – they had to be ready to counsel the men so they could go home and teach their wives. Men do want to be involved. Even in some incredibly patriarchal societies, they still don’t want unplanned pregnancies.
Holly Grigg-Spall’s book on how society has become so dependent on hormonal birth control, Sweetening The Pill, is being made into a documentary. To support this vital project, check out the Kickstarter campaign here.