IF HEADLINES ARE ANYTHING TO GO BY, an increasing number of women are rejecting hormonal contraceptives for the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness. According to this media coverage, these women are pursuing their interest in fertility awareness independently, without the involvement, support, or even — as they would have us believe — the awareness of their male partners.
The trend pieces have focused entirely on the female perspective, despite the fact that the majority of those who practice this method are in committed relationships. Unlike hormonal contraceptives or the copper IUD, FAM involves cooperation and communication between partners. Yet, with this lack of male perspective, anyone could believe that men are suffering through this transition in silence, just hoping their wives or girlfriends will eventually go back on the Pill.
Except they’re not. In private Facebook groups and FAM app forums, women meet to discuss their FAM charts, fertility signs, and their experience sharing this knowledge with their partners. They swap stories of how their partners (using the acronym DH for “dear husband” and DP for “dear partner”) go about asking whether they can have unprotected sex that day (using the acronym UP), and the many inventive ways they subtly let them know the best days to DTD (that’s “do the deed”) or avoid PIV (penis-in-vagina sex). In reality, men are engaged in the process, learning the method, and talking about it.
Contraception as a whole is, it would seem, a woman’s responsibility. Women are, even now, told that they must take charge of condoms — the only method of contraception that is male-controlled (aside from vasectomy) — by purchasing and carry those, too. The logic goes that women get pregnant, so it’s up to them to figure out how to stop that from happening (incidentally, it’s the same kind of logic that tells women they should prevent themselves from becoming sexual assault victims by modifying their behavior), yet men are also impacted by an unplanned pregnancy in ways that ought to be motivating them to take on more of the burden.
The side effects of hormonal birth control impact women primarily, but men are the secondary victims. In the conversations I’ve had with men about these side effects, more often than not they actually express feeling bad that their partner used the Pill with their support and, sometimes, enthusiasm.
What we’re seeing is fertility awareness going the way of the rest of the birth control methods: becoming the sole purview of women, despite the fact that it presents a unique opportunity for men to be included in the conversation.
To redress this off-kilter balance somewhat, I interviewed Dan. He and his partner Sarah have used the sympto-thermal method since she experienced serious psychological side effects on hormonal birth control. He describes how he first reacted to Sarah’s decision to learn FAM for contraception:
“I wanted to help, but also wanted to be sure I wasn’t telling her what to do with her body, but I agreed. She stayed on the Pill while reading about fertility awareness. I hated taking her to the pharmacy to get her pills during that time, since I was convinced that it was the cause of her misery. I wouldn’t say I was skeptical; I was worried. Worried about getting her pregnant. I figured we’d have to go all condoms, all the time — an idea that didn’t particularly enthrall me, but I was deeply worried about Sarah’s health, and if wearing condoms would help, I’d wear them gladly. I felt pretty powerless and a little guilty about the whole issue. I had insisted that we needed some sort of birth control and Sarah hadn’t wanted to use condoms, so it was me who said ‘Well, that’s what the Pill is for…’ I think, deep down, I felt like a lot of what she was experiencing was my fault.”
I asked Dan about some of the ways he feels he and his relationship with Sarah have benefited from their switch to fertility awareness.
Being able to learn a new skill together
“Hearing that FAM wasn’t just ONE method, but three stacked on top of each other, made me feel really good — this wasn’t just “hoping for the best” or pulling out, this was about both of us learning about our bodies.”
Increasing body awareness — for both partners
“I learned that the reason I was condom-averse was that most condoms are simply too small for me, and now that I was using them regularly I was able to find a brand that fit better, but still not comfortable! Did you know the FDA has a legal limit on the width of condoms that’s significantly smaller than that of Europe? It’s dumb. So this practice was helping me learn about my body as well.”
Making peace with condoms
“Having non-condom sex feels amazing because I have a chance to miss it, and now that condoms don’t hurt, I enjoy condom-ed sex as well.”
Allowing better communication
“Since I know her cycle well, I can say things like ‘Hey, I know you’re upset, but given where your cycle is, is that maybe contributing to this?’ and it doesn’t come across like I’m a raging misogynist, just someone who is in tune with their partner. It’s more like, ‘Hey, you didn’t eat lunch, maybe you’re not mad, just hungry?’ sort of thing.
Increasing and broadening intimacy
“It’s made us more curious in bed. With regular PIV off the table, if we want to have fluid contact, we’ve delved into role-play, some BDSM, anal play, and a whole host of other things that may not have been explored otherwise.”
Contraception isn’t only a women’s issue. We’re at a crossroads, and we can either run towards methods that decrease the need for open, honest conversation between men and women about our bodies and sex (I’m thinking long-acting hormonal methods and future remote-controlled implants — Vasalgel and the like), or we can embrace methods that necessitate this progression and communication in our relationships.
Which path are we all going to benefit the most from taking?