Slate.com recently ran a nice feature article about the promise and danger of new pill regimes that end monthly menstruation. William Saletan rightly notes that the worries about controlling women’s menstruation and messing with that nature are largely overblown. After all, in what sense could we call monthly periods “natural,” anyway? Birth control pills have been orchestrating many women’s periods for decades now, and the monthly period is itself a production of science and the regulation of the cycle by the pill. Feminists have both lauded and scorned the pill and its ostensible links to women’s liberation. On the plus side, the pill is an incredibly effective birth control device, and has helped heterosexually active women of childbearing age free themselves from the constant fear of pregnancy. The pill has been considered a motor of the sexual revolution, allowing women to explore their sexuality free from those fears. At the same time, the efficacy of the pill and the fact that men don’t necessarily have to know anything about it, has left contraception largely in the hands of women, and many men have been left off the hook. In terms of women’s health, the pill has also been linked to serious problems in smokers over 35 even while appearing to decrease the chances of some cancers. And the pill hooks women into a long term relationship with pharmeceutical companies. This is one expensive relationship; the stuff’s not cheap, especially since most health insurance doesn’t cover the cost, and the cost is on its way up, particularly on college campuses.
The newest change to birth control is Lybrel, a pill regimen approved by the FDA that will allow women to stop having periods altogether. What does it mean for women’s menstrual cycles and womanhood, some are asking, now that women won’t have them at all? Is this some kind of unholy messing with nature that rips from women something essential to their being? Or is this the next step on the path toward full liberation for women? Saleton quite rightly notes that this technology (which isn’t exactly new–women have been taking extra pills to avoid their periods for a long time) should cause us to pause to think not only about what this pill means for women’s nature, but also for women’s freedom. He worries that women will choose to forego their periods not for themselves, but for others. Women’s freedom is thus at risk.
What worries me here is this conception of freedom as wholly individual, as if women can conceive of our choices in a vacuum, unaffected by the needs and desires of others. Saleton writes, “Last year, when Lybrel’s manufacturer, Wyeth, asked women what bothered them most about their periods, most picked pain or inconvenience. But one in four cited mood swings, weight gain, overeating, clothing anxiety, or feeling dirty.” Saleton sees these last five reasons as inconvenient for boyfriends or employers rather than women themselves. This is a false distinction. The idea that women have a relationship to themselves and their bodies that is unmediated, that is outside the social in both intimate and more generic terms, seems problematic. Are women simply victims of false consciousness when they feel “dirty,” bleeding on a hot summer’s day? And what if a woman did choose to stop her period to please someone else? We make choices that demand attention to our interdependencies all the time, and while I would agree that women are asked to sacrifice when making choices to please men more often than not–we do still live in a patriarchy, contrary to what some postfeminists might think–it seems strange to put this burden on women, to decipher within themselves their “true” motivations for avoiding menstruation in order to serve a more generalized alleged freedom for women. Who decides the “right” and “wrong” reasons for choosing Lybrel? This is a problem, I think, with our generally emaciated concept of freedom, one that figures freedom only in terms of individual choice, usually in the marketplace.
Saleton begins his essay by drawing our attention to his lack of real knowledge on this issue: “I’m a guy, so I’ll stay out of the fight over womanhood.” But he doesn’t. To be a woman, or at least a properly liberated one, according to Saleton, doesn’t necessarily mean being dedicated to having your period. But it does mean not complaining about “mood swings, weight gain, overeating, clothing anxiety, or feeling dirty.” These are demands that pretend that how we as individual women experience our periods can happen outside of the social processes that tell us what our periods are, and what it means to be properly reproductive women. Saleton is right. We need to consider what Lybrel can tell us about freedom, but I would like to see that conversation move away from freedom as the right to choose whether to have our periods or not, with that choice, and why we make it, signposts of our own liberation, measured by men like Saleton. What would it mean to instead think of freedom more collectively, in ways that resist the individual-as-consumer model?