Getting your period can be annoying – a pain in more ways than one.
I’ll never forget being 13 or 14 and sitting in a history lesson at school knowing that I was bleeding. I asked to go to the toilet and was told no. That was pretty standard at the time, although towards the end of my time at school the rules had relaxed slightly.
As the lesson went on – rumbling through a potted history of slavery and skirting over Britain’s role in it – I could feel the discomfort of my sanitary pad filling up. The fear that consumes any young woman was rising up inside me. Was I going to bleed through my standard issue, just-above-the-knee navy blue school skirt?
I did. I’m 31 now, and the worry that this will happen has never gone away. So, I understand that period delay pills can be useful. If you know that you’re going to come on in the middle of a festival, your wedding, during a very important work week or, maybe, even just while you’re on holiday – being able to take a pill that grants you control over your body, is, in so many ways, a complete gift.
The recent news that Superdrug will stock period delay pills – also known as Norethisterone – and supply them to customers aged 18 and over (for as much as £59!) as part of their walk-in service at the store’s pharmacies is welcome news to many, and I can understand why.
However, once again, it serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go when it comes to developing the best possible contraceptive choices for women.
Like the contraceptive pill, period delay pills are not side-effect free. Norethisterone is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone progesterone and, like the other synthetic hormones in contraception, it can cause breast tenderness, nausea, headaches, low libido and, crucially, ‘disturbances in mood’.
What the NHS likely means by this is mental health side effects which can range from ‘feeling a bit low’ to full-blown depression and anxiety. No two women are the same and so no two women will respond to a pill in the same way.
If you’ve ever experienced these potential side effects, you’ll be convinced that they’re real but, if you haven’t, you might be tempted to suggest that women are making them up.
In 2017 I wrote about this as part of an investigation called Mad About The Pill. I found that many women who have reported experiencing mental health side effects of contraception have felt dismissed by their doctor.
Since then, I’ve interviewed multiple leading experts in this field who have all said similar things: there isn’t enough research in this area.
I travelled to Denmark to interview the professor behind research that has found a possible link between hormonal contraception and suicide. I’ve heard from Dr Michael Craig, who is the clinic lead and consultant psychiatrist at the National Hormone Clinic, and told me that there is ‘no doubt’ that a ‘sub-group’ of women experience negative side effects when they take hormonal contraception but, because there has been a lack of research in this field ‘we don’t know how big this group of women is or what’s different about them’.
In her satirical 1968 essay If Men Could Menstruate, Gloria Steinem imagined a world upside down, where men had periods and the monthly shedding of the womb’s lining was seen as a symbol of power.
‘To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea,’ she wrote. ‘Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.’
While hormonal contraception works for some women, there are many who experience negative side effects and it’s time that there was proper research into the pills that we’re being encouraged to put into our bodies.
The news that period delay pills are now available on the high street, over the counter without a prescription ought to be positive but, until research into the side effects of the synthetic hormones it contains is properly funded, contraception will always be a bittersweet pill to swallow.
We can send spaceships to Mars, so is it so far fetched to imagine a world where women can take a side effect free pill in order to have reproductive autonomy? Forty years on, the question ‘what would the world look like if men had periods?’ is still worth asking.
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