In the past 12 months the community of women who use fertility awareness for avoiding pregnancy has become both more visible and more diverse. This FAMily, as I have heard it called (FAM stands for Fertility Awareness Method), has welcomed newcomers with the generous spirit that comes from being, still, a band of outsiders who are, in many ways, going against what is deemed acceptable at this time by the mainstream in the medical establishment and society at large. Often these newcomers are Pill refugees, seeking a non-hormonal, effective contraceptive, despite being told since their teens that their choice amounts to hormonal birth control or an unplanned pregnancy.
Although “charters” or “FAMers,” as they also call themselves, are actually on-trend when viewed within the context of the quantified self movement, the organic food movement, and the holistic health movement; they are pioneers, and like all pioneers by positioning themselves on the threshold between the past and the future of reproductive health, they have become targets for judgment, assumptions and willful misunderstandings. Choosing to become a charter today reveals no particular political or religious allegiance, but it is interesting to note that this choice is politicized by others.
Just as Pill-takers might otherwise be fastidious about eating only organic food, avoiding hormones in their meat and dairy products, feel wary of GMOs, and not use plastics; FAMers might be quick to pop a painkiller when they get a headache, not adhere to a strict diet, and never have taken a yoga class or made their own kombucha. Although charting can make a FAMer aware of food intolerance and allergies as well as the impact of poor sleep and alcohol on hormones, and so increase overall engagement in good health – choosing to chart and become part of the FAMily doesn’t require an application form that outlines why your lifestyle and personality is suitable for this contraceptive method.
The friction between FAMers and the mainstream comes mostly out of the proliferation of misinformation. A comment in a recent feature at Al Jazeera America on women using the method noted that it is mostly “white, educated” women in the US using FAM at this time, misguidedly suggesting that this was the only group who would be able to learn (of course, the reason for this is primarily that Planned Parenthood does not offer FAM instruction as standard) Many in the FAMily believe that, although it is not a method everyone will choose for birth control, democratization of this knowledge and information is important. Important and desired - a recent study showed that when FAM is explained, at least 1 in 5 women are keen to know more and would consider using the method for contraception.
Here’s a rundown of some of the other myths and misinformation that prevent women who would benefit finding the FAMily.
1. It’s antifeminist to choose FAM over the Pill.
Some see a woman’s decision to chart as a step backwards. The Pill was a very important part of our journey towards equality for women, but 55 years on, we have to wonder whether it is still as necessary or relevant to our liberation. Many FAMers are feminists and see their choice as empowering.
2. It’s anti-sex.
Even though many FAMers had actually grown tired of the libido-suppressing Pill when they found this method, there is an assumption that FAM = less sex or bad sex (read: unspontaneous, overly planned). It is assumed charters have to do without sex entirely for anywhere between a week to half the month, but many use barriers when fertile (which is, realistically, only a 7 day window for accomplished charters) or just abstain from baby-making sex only (meaning they might actually be more experimental than the average couple). In a committed relationship FAM allows you to go condom-free for much of the month, too.
3. It’s irresponsible.
What is actually irresponsible is giving women the Pill in their teens, knowing that many will experience side effects and stop taking it, with no clue how to properly protect themselves from pregnancy without this. If you know you’re fertile when you have unprotected sex, you are empowered to make the right decision for you. With proper use, FAM is as effective as the Pill.
4. It’s for getting pregnant only.
It’s often assumed that all FAMers either want to get pregnant or they secretly want to get pregnant. However, some women use it because they absolutely do not want to get pregnant and feel more in control knowing their own body than trusting the Pill. The FAMily has room for women at all points on the scale of baby-fever to baby-adverse.
5. It’s a gateway to hippy-dom.
Although many FAMers do become more health and environmentally conscious as a result of developing a close relationship with their body; not all charters are keeping a close eye on the moon or heading to red tents once a month. Some are, sure, but not all. In fact there are also a lot of science nerdy-types who are extremely skeptical of anything not evidence-based or even slightly mystical.
A little bit about Holly and her awesome work!
Holly Grigg-Spall is a writer and women's health advocate. Her book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control has been featured in Elle, the Sunday Times Style (UK), Marie Claire, New York magazine, the Guardian, and on CBC and the BBC, amongst others. The book was optioned by Ricki Lake and is the inspiration for a forthcoming feature documentary. She also currently writes frequently for LadyClever.com.