By: Alice Murray
Fertility tracking has been used for decades, both as a form of birth control and a way of understanding menstrual and reproductive health. Fertility awareness methods (“FAM”) can include a range of things like daily records of fertility signals, temperature tracking and checking cervical fluids (Planned Parenthood). FAM can be a very appealing method of birth control to many people as it has no physical side effects, doesn't involve visits to the doctor or pharmacist, and is inclusive to a range of faiths and cultural backgrounds (NHS).
image credit: Markus Spiske
If the method is followed correctly, it can be 99% effective as a method of birth control (NHS). However, various factors may affect this rate, as time and commitment are required for the method to be used properly. Whilst this method is great for those who want to avoid hormonal methods or trips to the doctors, it is important to understand that FAM is not a suitable form of birth control for many others. For example, those with pelvic and womb related illnesses or STIs may find it challenging to correctly track their fertility, as they can disrupt the production of cervical mucus (Planned Parenthood). Taking certain medications, or having recently had an abortion or miscarriage can all make it challenging to correctly track fertility (NHS).
There are also a range of personal factors that could make FAM an inappropriate method for an individual as users have to use barrier methods or abstain from sex for up to 16 days during some cycles (NHS). It has also been argued that FAM shifts the responsibility away from the public health service and onto the individual. This responsibility can often be anxiety inducing for contraceptive users.
For this reason, it’s important that conversations about 'natural' tracking methods are centred around the freedom of being able to make informed choices, rather than imposing judgment on those who choose to use hormonal contraception methods. Understanding that every contraceptive user has a different set of external factors that shape their choices allows for more productive and open conversations about contraception to take place. One small step we can take to achieve this is being conscious of the language used when discussing contraceptive options. Language used to talk about FAM both online and in FAM guidebooks is often very emotive; words like 'natural', 'organic' and 'mindful' are used frequently. We often see this kind of language being used on FAM apps, leaving us to assume it may often be a simple marketing technique as these are all “desirable” concepts. However, using terms such as 'organic' and 'natural' can further stigmatise the use of hormonal contraceptive methods, suggesting they are unnatural or even harmful.
image credit: Dainis Graveris
If hormonal contraceptive users experience feelings of guilt and shame about their contraceptive choices due to the emotive language used in discussions around FAM, it can lead to them feeling pressured to change their method. Advocates of FAM often reiterate the importance of 'listening' to your body and being 'in-tune' with your womb. It is important, however, to consider those with womb syndromes, those with illnesses or on medication, and how these discussions can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Putting a strong emphasis on listening to your body’s 'natural rhythm' excludes a huge proportion of people with wombs who do not have the privilege to be as free in their contraceptive choice as others.
FAM is increasingly being used not as a form of birth control, but simply as a tool to help individuals track fertility and menstrual cycles (Clue). It’s great to see an increase in the importance of understanding menstrual health normalised. With the recent influx of various fertility tracking apps, this is now easier than ever. However, one thing that stands out in conversations surrounding FAM is the incredibly gendered language used by fertility tracking advocates and organisations. Many popular fertility tracking books and websites describe the menstrual cycle as being the source of our 'feminine energy', something that distinguishes females from the rest. The word 'womanhood' is also used frequently in conversations surrounding fertility, and most period tracking websites describe themselves exclusively as 'women's health' apps.
This heavily gendered and non-inclusive language used in conversations around fertility tracking comes with damaging effects. By saying that the menstrual cycle is where 'feminine power' and 'female energy' comes from, it suggests that those who do not have a menstrual cycle are not female. It is hard to ignore the TERF ideology that has shaped FAM culture. This has played a central role in excluding trans women and non-binary people from conversations surrounding sexual health and questions the validity of their existence. It is also important to remember that it is not just women who menstruate, many trans men and non-binary people also do and the language used around FAM completely disregards this fact. It may feel like a small action, but monitoring our usage of gendered language in conversations around contraception can play a central role in both challenging gender stereotypes and being a trans ally.
It is important to say that most advocates of FAM have positive intentions of educating people on alternative contraceptive choices. However, there are large problems present within FAM conversations and specifically in fertility tracking apps. In recent years, it has contributed to trans exclusionary discourse and created divides among hormonal/non-hormonal contraceptive users. To have positive and productive conversations about contraception, it is essential that FAM advocates relay their message without judgement and being inclusive of all genders always.