Author Holly Grigg-Spall Examines The Effects Of The Birth Control Pill Through A Feminist Lens In Her Book ‘Sweetening The Pill’

It’s no secret that reproductive rights and access are at a tipping point in the United States. While abortion access has been the target of anti-choice, right-wing political campaigns for a while, we’ve also scarily seen an increase in focus on birth control access, leading many on the left as well as numerous feminist activists and organizations to sound the alarm about women’s bodily autonomy, and rightly so. But what happens when criticism about contraception, in particular hormonal birth control pills, arises from feminists and those holding a pro choice perspective?

The way we see it, no examination, deep-dive, and in particular personal story should be off-limits when it comes to conversations about providing women with as much information as possible in terms of making the best choice for her. Enter author Holly Grigg-Spall and her book ‘Sweetening The Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control.‘ The book was released in 2013 and has since become an underground phenomenon.

She wrote an Op-Ed for the Guardian on the pill and mental health side effects, which was ranked as the most-read comment piece of 2016. The story went viral, became a Twitter Moment, and as a result she was featured by the Washington Post and interviewed for NPR, American and British Vogue magazines, and more. Vice named Holly “the poster girl for a movement of women abandoning the pill in favor of contraceptives that don’t wreak havoc on their body and mind.” Continuing the momentum of her book and the widespread conversations it has started, Holly is now co-producing a documentary based on her book titled ‘The Business of Birth Control’ with none other than Ricki Lake (‘The Business of Being Born’) and director Abby Epstein.

Due for release some time in 2020 and made possible by a successful Kickstarter campaign, we wanted to speak with Holly about her own birth control journey, how the book and subsequent documentary came about, and her thoughts on how she hopes her feminist perspective will encourage more needed conversations about contraception among the reproductive healthcare and rights communities.

What prompted you to write “Sweetening the Pill’?

My book began with my own experience using the birth control pill for 10 years. I had a particularly bad experience with one very popular brand, Yasmin. It caused me severe mental health side effects, as well as a number of physical side effects. Over about 2.5 years my health really deteriorated. However, it took me that long to connect my issues with the pill I was taking. I was a journalist, so my curiosity took over, and I began my own research project. I pitched some features to magazines on the topic of birth control side effects and got a great response. I realized many other women were having similar experiences but not getting much support. I then began a blog (this was in 2009 when such things were much more common). The blog became a record of my transition off the birth control pill. The blog became a book proposal, a book, and soon it will be a documentary!

While many people view the birth control pill as one of the most advanced innovations for women’s freedom, you are encouraging readers to look at it from a different perspective. Have you received pushback because of your focus? 

When my book was released in 2013 there were reviewers that explicitly told women not to read it! There was a petition to have it banned. There was a furor on Twitter during which I was called anti-feminist, a wing-nut, crazy…all kinds of names. By women, and women who were considered at the time to be feminist representatives. I was accused of lying, I was told sharing my story was dangerous. I cannot imagine this happening in the same way today. We have progressed the conversation to include ideas of healthcare gaslighting, medical negligence when it comes to women’s health specifically, medical misogyny, the need to trust and listen to women, the need to believe women when they share their experiences. My book was before its time and I suffered some for that. But I was also able to be a catalyst in helping many women come off their hormonal birth control and find better health and wellness. I was able to encourage women to share their stories. The book became something of a cult hit.

‘The Business of Birth Control Producers and Director (from L-R) Ricki Lake, Holly Grigg-Spall, Abby Epstein.

There is a growing number of feminist conversations about different types of fertility awareness, including exposing the potential harm of some hormonal birth control methods. How does your book play a role in this conversation?

My book tracks my journey from hormonal birth control to body literacy. Essentially it details my personal awakening as I came to understand my body. Fertility awareness practice played a huge part in giving me the confidence to stop using birth control. My book frames fertility awareness practice and body literacy as potentially revolutionary, the missing piece of the feminist puzzle. There is the possibility for shifting how we feel about our bodies, how we advocate for our selves, and a body sovereignty that’s so important as women’s reproductive rights continue to be a political football. My book sketched out the potential harms of hormonal birth control, but since then many large-scale studies have revealed my suggestions and connections were correct. Hormonal birth control is linked to depression, increased suicide risk, it is connected to breast cancer risk. At the time, I was working with my own research and my own experience, and what I discovered speaking to hundreds of women. This has all been validated.

Tell us how Ricki Lake found out about your book, and how the documentary ‘The Business of Birth Control’ came about? 

Even before my book was published I knew it would make a great documentary in the vein of ‘The Business of Being Born’. I saw that there could and should be a film that suggested the possibility for empowerment beyond the mainstream medical model for birth control. I contacted the director, Abby Epstein, who works alongside Ricki Lake. I sent her several versions of my book and just kept in touch over about 6-9 months. Eventually, Abby was on a plane to LA to visit Ricki and she read my book and was blown away. She saw it could make a great documentary. I got invited to Ricki’s house to chat. I turned up and, sat at her kitchen island, I pitched for 2 hours straight. Not long after they optioned the book for a feature documentary and I’ve worked with them on this since 2014. 

Filming interviews for ‘The Business of Birth Control’

How do you respond to people who are concerned about the rise in anti-choice legislation that not only focused on abortion access but also birth control? 

I am pro-choice, but possibly even more so than many Americans. I grew up in the UK with the National Health Service. I believe birth control of all types should be free and freely accessible. I even think there’s benefits to it being widely over-the-counter. However, I would also like to see a full menu of non-hormonal birth control methods presented and as available. I’d like to see body literacy taught in high schools. I’d like women to be able to make informed, supported choices that work best for them. Unfortunately, the access wars in the US have meant we have been very focused on getting hormonal birth control to women and not very focused on the possible side effects and safety issues of these methods. I’d like us to tackle both. I want there to be space for us to reconsider how hormonal birth control impacts women’s health. 

Can you share more about your feminist perspective within your book? 

I think when I wrote my book that I had only recently come around to feminism! I went to an all-girls school, I went to Mt Holyoke, I have 2 sisters – yet feminism wasn’t something I spent a lot of time thinking about. I was 26 when I began my blog. I don’t think that was unusual in 2009. It would be more unusual now as the feminist movement has become popularized. As such, the book takes on the fact that the feminist movement was protective of the pill. I was reading lots of feminist history and again and again the narrative was that the pill arrived, women were liberated and better off, everything is great, the pill is the feminist movement, the end.

I wrote a piece for a UK newspaper in 2010 around the pill’s anniversary and I questioned how feminists had allowed a medication to become synonymous with women’s liberation, to take so much credit for women’s work and struggle, and not examine it critically. I also knew that there was this almost secret feminist history of the Nelson Pill Hearing Protests, Barbara Seaman’s book ‘The Doctor’s Case Against The Pill,’ which was brushed aside in the present day as being no longer relevant. There had been a time when the feminist movement was not comfortable with the proliferation of the pill. But contemporary feminism, from what I saw, had little time for discussion of side effects.

Filming interviews for ‘The Business of Birth Control’

Do you think the medical industry is paying attention to the women speaking up about birth control, or the numerous lawsuits being opened? 

The pharmaceutical industry has responded to the decreased interest in the pill and increase discussion of side effects by pushing their solutions, such as the hormone-based IUD. The thing is, they know that the way society is set up, still very few women feel able to not be on hormonal birth control. The way of dealing with it has been increased marketing spending, paying for the silence of those who begin lawsuits regarding their injury or their daughter’s death. When there is research regarding side effects, they’ll go fund some research that counters it and put PR behind that. They are not ethical, women’s lives are not their priority, only the profits.

Recently there was a lot of attention around male birth control, and how trials have been stopped due to less-than-desirable effects. What are your thoughts on this, given the numerous historical accounts of women who have been experimented on or expressed pain, but ignored due to their race or status? 

My take on the male pill or male birth control is that we already have options and men often don’t use them! Condoms and vasectomy. With both – numbers of users have fallen in recent years. I think if we’re going to see a male birth control option, men need to show they’re an interested market, that they want options. But right now they don’t use the few that they have! I am not an advocate of it being “men’s turn” to experience side effects. I wouldn’t encourage my husband to use the male pill if it were available. Obviously the fact that we don’t have a male pill should support the argument I make in my book – that the pill is a product of the patriarchal system we live in and not necessarily a revolutionary tool.

Where do you hope conversations around birth control will be in 10 years time in the United States? 

I would love to see body literacy and the basics of fertility awareness taught in high schools and then available to women as an educational option at clinics. I think knowing about your cycle and how to track your fertility can help women make informed decisions, even if they then decide to use the pill or get an IUD. I do think that would require something of a feminist revolution, for us to teach women and not keep them in the dark, to address their health issues, and to change how we talk about periods.

What do you hope readers and viewers will take away from your book, and the documentary? 

My book is dedicated to all those women who have suffered side effects from hormonal birth control. My goal always has been to support women in trusting themselves, prioritizing their health and well-being, and going off hormonal birth control when its right for them. I still get the emails that say they read my book and came off and it was a positive, life-changing experience. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t want other women to suffer as I did, not making the connection between side effects and birth control. I want women to have the information and the real choice. With the documentary, I hope it does the same, but one thousand-fold! Documentaries can be such powerful agents of change. 

You can buy ‘Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control by clicking here. You can also support the production team by donating to the documentary Patreon here.

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