When condoms and Plan B won’t cut it anymore.
In college (which ended just ten months ago), I was diagnosed with manic depression. I will spare you the details, but long story short, a mood stabilizer quite literally saved my life in September 2016. That mood stabilizer was and still is Lamictal.
The first time I had sex preceded this diagnosis by about five months, but I had not given birth control a single thought because at the time, I was in a monogamous relationship with a man who was new enough at sex to not try to weasel his way out of wearing a condom and birth control terrified me no thanks to my immersion in abstinence-only sex education and religious purity culture.
After this relationship came to a close, however, I found myself occasionally acquiescing, ignoring my discomfort, and making phone calls that opened with, “Uh, did we use a condom last night”?
When straight cis men have sex with straight cis women, the former party all but assumes the latter is on birth control, and this assumption is typically revealed after the unprotected deed is done. My sexual partners always looked at me like I was the most irresponsible being to ever walk the planet when my reality flew in the face of their assumption. I was left scrambling to justify myself, while they bitched and moaned at the mere suggestion of using a condom. (This is barring how they seemed to think that STIs were a moot point.)
Over time, I learned how to be a stickler about condom usage, but in the beginning, I didn’t know how to respond to a sexual encounter that just kind of … began. There was no discussion about protection, and by the time I had given it a thought, it was too late. Ah, the vagaries of consent that exist when education about the extent of consent does not.
After the second (third?) Plan B, I came to the conclusion that it was time to start taking birth control, but alas, hormonal birth control was a risk for me because 1) the combined pills would interact with my mood stabilizer and 2) the progestin-only pills would cause an asthmatic reaction because of my Aspirin-Exacerbated Respiratory Disease. I wasn’t willing to risk the efficacy of either my birth control or mood stabilizer, and I certainly couldn’t subject myself to possible asthma attacks. All the interactions and risks of other hormonal methods were up in the air. I didn’t appreciate the ambiguity of effects of the non-pill options. I was (am) the poster child for “not a great candidate for hormonal birth control.”
Enter: ParaGard—“an Intrauterine Device (IUD) Copper T 380A that is,” per Very Well Health, “a small, ’T-shaped’ contraceptive device, about 1-1/4 inches wide by 1-3/8 inches long, made of flexible plastic and wrapped in copper” that “helps prevent sperm from joining with an egg by interfering with the movement of the sperm toward the egg. It is also believed the ParaGard IUD causes changes in the lining of the uterus that reduce the likelihood of implantation. ParaGuard provides pregnancy prevention immediately after it is inserted.”
I oscillated between excitement and sheer terror for over a year before I seriously began trying to schedule an appointment to have an IUD placed. I did rational research on the Planned Parenthood website and also perused alarmist forums with copper IUD horror stories. I do not want to invalidate those women’s experiences. I’m sure that most are real and genuine; however, the abstinence-only and/or anti-choice community masks its agenda with “exposés” on the alleged dangers of reproductive health measures. Its members play on women’s fear, internalized shame, and, in some cases, ignorance to paint a healthy choice as anything but. Shackling women to their reproductive systems is a surefire way to ensure they never have complete autonomy or agency. Demonizing birth control to potential users on the Internet is a good place to start.
Before my severe anxiety was alleviated, these horror stories proved effective in keeping me from actively pursuing birth control, but by the FIFTH Plan B, I cracked, which, admittedly, was extremely overdue.
I was tired of feeling—and sometimes being—out of control of preventing pregnancy. Condoms are effective, yes, but I had grown less than trusting of my and my sexual partners’ realistic ability to use them correctly 100% of the time. While I knew condoms would still be necessary for protection from STIs, I wanted to take the guesswork of pregnancy prevention out of the equation. I wanted to practice what I preached about sexual health. In my initial naivety, I did not think about how I was jeopardizing my health, but the weight grew heavier as it became increasingly clear that, yes, the negative consequences of unprotected sex could happen to me. No one is exempt from the risks.
Was I reverting back to my abstinence-only upbringing? Certainly not. But everything from driving a car to using an oven has risks. Most activities have necessary safety precautions. Choosing not to participate isn’t realistic, but choosing to participate safely is.
Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman