What's Up With The Stigma Around Taking Birth Control for Heavy Periods?
I started taking birth control when I was 12 years old, mere months after I got my first period. I was 11 when I got my first period, and the cycle immediately after that was incredibly irregular. My mom and I were told by many doctors that irregularity in menstruation is common in the first years of having your period. We accepted this for some time until the cramps and the bleeding were completely out of control and we ended up touching base with my doctor again. This time I was diagnosed with Von Willebrand’s disease (a milder bleeding disorder).
The diagnosis was possible based on the amount of blood loss that occurred during my periods. Regularly, it was normal for me to miss at least a week of school every month, as my bleeding was so heavy that I couldn’t stand without bleeding through my pants and two maxi-pads. Plus my periods, as well as my inconsolable cramps, would last for nearly half of the month.
With the new diagnosis came instructions to both track my periods and to ask a gynecologist about the pill. So I waddled to my first-ever gynecologist appointment mid-period, my mother in tow, feeling faint from all the blood loss. After assessing me, the gyno prescribed me an oral birth control, Kariva. I daydreamed about a life with regular periods that didn’t stop me from going to school as she wrote the prescription.
Before I left her office, she asked my mom to leave the room (already a red flag) and started a chat with me about “responsibility.” “You know these pills don’t give you a license to have sex, right?” she asked me. I felt a combination of confusion, discomfort and defensiveness. I nodded, saying, “That’s the last thing on my mind.” As a 12-year-old who never thought of being in a relationship, it was true. But that wasn’t quite the point.
As the months went by, I finally saw my period and bleeding become less painful and severe. So I stayed on birth control for years, until I was 18 when I could ensure that my period had become regular on its own. Every year I was on it, I had to be reassessed by a gynecologist to keep taking the pill, and each time, I got the same uncomfortable sex talk. I wouldn’t become sexually active until age 19, so I would always answer these warnings with, “This doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have sex.” This would always be met with a relieved smile and something along the lines of, “Oh good. You’re much too young for that anyway. You don’t have to rush into anything.” When I heard this speech at 18, I dismissed it angrily because of the sex that I wished I were having.
No matter how many times I changed gynos, I’d have the same experience. I had to explain to each doctor that I was only on the pill because of my irregular period and then felt guilty after their slut-shaming praise rained down upon me. What if I were having sex? What if it’s none of their business? What if I were in fact using birth control for what it was intended to be used in the first place: as birth control for sex?
Telling a 12-year-old that birth control pills are not a “license to have sex” is the logical equivalent of schools withholding sex education and condoms with the idea that sex simply won’t happen without them.
Immediately linking hormonal birth control to an active sex life is already an arrogant assumption since thousands of women take the pill to regulate their period first and foremost. Because of the first time I was warned away from sex because I was on the pill, I also feel that sexualizing the use of birth control for a 12-year-old should be prohibited.
Ultimately, all that stigmatizing of the pill gynos did in sessions with me affected my ultimate perception of my sexuality. It made me feel like the fact that I was taking birth control was a dirty, almost burdensome thing; and the fact that I always felt the need to defend that I was only taking it for medical reasons speaks to how I was internalizing all this slut-shaming and fear surrounding my own sexuality.
When I needed birth control to stop my bleeding, cramps and anemia, there was much hesitation on the side of my doctor because I was so young. In their eyes, the pills were going to turn my awkward and pain-filled 12-year-old body into a sex machine. But as it’s been acknowledged for years that the hormones in these pills help treat a variety of conditions in women, birth control pills are not just for sex.
I didn’t end up needing to use birth control pills after I turned 18 for health or sexual reasons. But if I did need it, I hate the thought of how anxious and ashamed I’d be when trying to get a prescription for them. After all my years of having heavy periods in childhood and being shamed by medical professionals for taking the very drug they were prescribing me, I was taught to be embarrassed of my sexual activity and sexual body. And in the end, all that does is discourage people from having safer sex (no matter what the age), as the same lessons that I learned from my gynos create shame around the very thing that can keep everyone safest and most healthy.
A version of this article was originally published in July 2017. It was syndicated from HelloFlo.