The recently published CNN article on FAM shines light on a new trend in contraception...where suddenly Fertility Awareness is not simply a practice of body awareness but it is a 'high-tech' method of contraception. This, along with a ridiculous number of new apps and on-line programs for ‘charting your cycles’ ‘predicting your ovulation’ and 'tracking your period’ is disconcerting to some of us (completely successful) luddite paper charters.
As someone who has been following my cycles intimately for over 20 years, in a way this seems like a wonderful success. It’s a breakthrough to what I call the ‘post-pill true feminist era’ many of us have been waiting for…where women will step across the cultural threshold of misconceptions and take back their basic right to own their fertility… Right?
Upon closer examination, it seems that the curse of these forward thinking, fast paced yet impatient times might be fooling us. Don’t get me wrong… there are some kick-ass apps out there, I’ll get to that a little later…but there are a whole hell of a lot of apps that are actually carrying us back to the sad days of the rhythm method and creating yet another wave of misleading information and false confidence about natural contraception.
As long as there have been women on this earth, there have been cycles of fertility pulsing through them. Indeed, the same cycles that glide the moon across our skies and pull the rising tide up higher on the beach are now, as always, moving through the women of our planet, showing us when the land is fertile for a new seedling to sprout in the warm depths of our wombs and when the dry soil of infertility is upon us and the times are ripe for unprotected, confident, safe love making for all of us who are not in the mood for another babe in the oven.
Knowing your cycles and how to work with them is a basic health care practice that is due to re-emerge in this era where women’s empowerment is leaping worlds beyond pills and abortion, to actually give women the skills to be in synch with their fertility, to align with, rather than suppress, these wild hormones that make us whores one day, brilliant creators another and bitches the next. This is the life force of the woman, just as the it rains one day and the sun shines another.
Call yours back ladies!
Let me start with a little history on NFP and FA methods for natural contraception… It all started in the 1920’s when ‘aha!’, ovulation was ‘discovered’ to happen somewhere in the middle of the weeks between menses in a woman’s cycle. So... count your cycle days, avoid sex during the middle of the cycle... 'acbracadabra'... no babies! (ok, well, not too many...) This is the rhythm method. Soon thereafter, scientists found what women were likely noticing since women were women…that we have an interestingly slippery, stretchy, wet fluid that our wombs produce mid-cycle that happens to make us extremely able to feed and care for little spermys when they come our way, as well as making us well lubricated, sweet smelling and tasting! Well, eventually science came out with the evidence that ‘cervical fluid’ precedes ovulation, the wonderful release of the egg from a woman’s ovary. This led to methods such as the Billings Ovulation method, where women track their secretions and decide on when their fertile time begins and ends. Next came the temperatures. Once that lovely little egg springs forth and makes itself available to begin a new life… the empty sac that held it continues to be an active endocrine gland, producing a hormone that heats your body up to warm and protect that potential life on its way to being. So out of this came a multitude of methods of contraception and Natural Family Planning that involve tracking Cervical Fluid (CF) and Basal Body Temperature (BBT) to discover when you are fertile and when you aren’t.
Most of you probably never got the memo. Whether it was the association with the church… the fact that western medical doctors don’t even learn this in medical school, (that's changing thank god) that the pharmaceutical companies don’t get a dime or that we happen to live in a culture that is barely awake to the joys of living fully embodied and aware in all our senses… Well, either way, the word didn’t get around…. that this new form of natural contraception actually WORKS. Like, really works. In fact it can be “as effective as the pill” when used correctly (and I would add, learned from a certified, knowledgeable source). It’s come a long ways from its roots in modern culture, AKA ‘the rhythm method’ and science has actually kept up with it.
Though this has been around since the 80’s, my sense is the true re-emergence is just beginning. Women are fed up with pharmaceuticals messing with their sex drive, mood, weight (fertility, health, happiness, etc…) and are realizing it's just not sustainable. Not for women, not for the planet.
Thus, back to ‘the apps’. Though I myself grew up before the techno age, didn’t touch a computer until high school, and have a fat binder full of 15 years worth of paper cycle charts… I am well aware that charting apps are the thing… So, of course I was thrilled to hear that there is a wild movement to take cycle charting to telephone, the computer, the palm of the hand. GREAT.
The thing is (and always was) that learning to chart your cycle well enough to use it for contraception takes AN EDUCATION. I’m sorry to say (with full confidence) that no, natural birth control did not just become as easy as entering your data into an app and waiting for them to tell you whether to have sex or not. This, sadly, is the continuation of our pill popping, instant gratification culture that doesn’t have time to tend to the soils and get to know the weather patterns and seasons, in order to grow a truly healthy garden.
The pill was a revolutionary invention. Women could have sex whenever they wanted and still choose to stay child-free until they were ready. It launched us forward to a new era of freedom to explore and grow. The invention of pesticides might hold a similar place in history… the chance to let one application of a substance destroy what hours and days of hand weeding used to. Yay! Felt like freedom for a minute. We gained time. We gained mind space, to be filled with something else for a generation or two. Now here we are, busy, self-obsessed and dying of cancer and other disease induced by an over-zealous chemical age. Oops. The quick fix chemical answer just isn’t cutting it any more.
The apps of today, for the most part are coming from the same quick fix mentality. App people (not all of you, bare with my generalization for a moment): maybe YOU’re just not getting it… We want something that WORKS. And though not everyone knows it yet, I think it would be fair to say, we want all the benefits.
Yes, it’s true some women just want to write down when their period comes each month, keep on with their condoms or IUD… that’s all good. But there are also many of us who want to take the time and dedication to work in synch with our bodies and have faith that they will tell us things.
If an app proclaims to be able to ‘calculate’ when you are fertile.. you are using an computerized version of the rhythm method.. Did I mention the rhythm method doesn’t really work? Might an app like this work for you? Well, yes, maybe. If your cycles are regular and they stay regular. Which yes, could be you. Then there are the rest of us, who occasionally have an early or late ovulation, due to stress, travel, illness, imbalances or any number of other things. We’re the ones who might get pregnant when we didn’t want to, because we were using a glorified rhythm method practice on a small screen.
Now, not all apps are created equal. There are apps that don’t predict, that actually let your bodies tell you and let you make decisions for yourself. But, this is where the learning piece comes in. A non-predictive app is like a blank chart on paper. The human does the work. Thus, there is a good chance that it is effective for contraception. This is where the paradigm will begin to shift. Have I mentioned the benefits of natural contraception? How about this for a benefits list...
No chemicals. No side effects. Free after initial education. Empowering. Intimacy creating. No rubber. Track your gynecological Health. Get a hormonal education. Identify hormonal imbalances. Good for the earth. Good for your body. Plan your conception. Know how and when to conceive. No Doctor Visits....
But these come with a trade in: TIME and practice. You need to learn the lay of the land. You need to be willing to sign up for the real deal… the education, the guidance, the follow-up. Might you still get pregnant? Yes. That’s how life works: mysteriously. But a .4-.6% failure rate is just about as good as it gets…uh, unless you’re not having sex.
The ‘new era’ of FAM and sympto-thermal are a perfect mix of intuitive practice, the permaculture of the body, with modern science; rules, guidelines, technique. Damn,how did we get so lucky? We get to enjoy the beauty and depth of an age-old practice, an empowering and intimacy inducing ritual AND get the benefits of well performed scientific studies? Yeah!
So, I see the app world as such… There are three types: Predictive. Interpretive. Data Collection. Let’s say you want the real deal: I suggest you learn how to follow your cycles by working with an FA Educator (or a combo of book learning and consultation) then use a data collecting app such as Kindara. You’re set. Or, learn your cycles and use a slightly interpretive app such as Sympto, to back up your knowledge as you gain confidence. Leave the Predictive apps for those who aren’t using it for contraception but for conception instead, or who are just tracking for fun. Or for those times in your life when you are ‘open’ to conceiving.
It’s time to stop the bad reputation FAM has had for decades. We are heading down a slippery slope of re-injuring the name of FAM by mis-association… again. Call an orange an orange and you will make the day of the thousands of women who have used FAM for decades SUCCESSFULLY, for those of us that teach FAM, for those of us that TRUST our bodies and KNOW without a doubt they tell us what we need to know.
Thanks for listening.