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What Constitutes a Positive Contraceptive Experience?

Updated: May 27, 2020

By: Sophie Butcher

This piece was originally written for Polygeia about a joint project we are working on with them entitled "What Constitutes a Positive Contraceptive Experience?"

Our research project is answering the question: ‘what constitutes a positive contraceptive experience?’. This question is designed to encompass many different aspects of an individual’s contraceptive experience: their ability to make informed choices, the support available to them in making those choices, side effects (both mental and physical), and empowerment. 

Together, these concepts dictate whether someone will be happy with their contraceptive experiences or not. The 2019 CERT report found that a staggering 95.9% of survey respondents thought that contraception needed improvements (CERT, 2019). It therefore seems that, currently, contraceptive experiences are overwhelmingly negative. By determining what someone’s contraceptive experience would look like in an ideal world, we can establish the short-comings in the status quo and provide possible policy-based solutions to bridge the gap. 

Furthermore, an individual’s contraceptive experience is arguably a significant part of their daily life - and this is never truer than when it goes wrong. As mentioned above, negative side effects can harm someone’s physical and mental health. Per the 2019 CERT report, almost 4 out of 5 contraceptive users have experienced them. In serious cases, these can be debilitating. In the words of one participant in the 2019 CERT report, “Poorer mental health, weight gain, low self-esteem and bad mood swings completely changed me”. Not only can this be beyond unpleasant, but there is a deeper concept at play here: side effects can mean that contraceptive users experience a ‘challenge to bodily control’ (Hoggart and Newton, 2013). These often dramatic changes to their bodies can make them feel like they are no longer autonomous. This is made even more troubling by how much of the discourse on contraception is centred around personal choice in a positive way. 

The scale of the issue also needs to be considered to understand its importance. An estimated 87% of UK women and 74% of UK men have accessed some form of contraception in the past year (French et al, 2018), so its effects are wide-reaching. Problems with contraception can affect a large amount of the population so it therefore follows that a positive contraceptive experience can benefit an equally large number. 

It is, however, too simplistic to say that this topic warrants academic attention because of the numbers of people it affects. It is far more nuanced, as contraceptive experiences are inherently gendered. Within heterosexual relationships, there is a tendency for the burden of responsibility for contraception to fall onto women - partly due to a lack of so-called ‘male contraceptives’ (outside of condoms), and partly due to the more immediate consequences of not using it (Chao et al, 2014). Even when considering condom use, it is commonplace for it to fall to female sexual partners to insist on usage (Hoggart and Newton, 2013). So, if the burden of contraceptive responsibility falls on women in this situation, they are the ones suffering disproportionately from problems - but also the ones that will benefit from improvements. 

If the feminist discourse surrounding contraception focuses on its integral role in empowerment and deconstructing gender roles (Marks, 2010), then research like this is needed to ensure that it is living up to the lofty standards we have for it. So, this research into the question: ‘what constitutes a positive contraceptive experience?’ matters because it is a gendered issue that has the possibility to improve the daily lives of a large segment of the reproductive population. 

Cover image source: Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition

Works Cited 

Chao, J., Page, S.T. & Anderson, R.A. (2014). ‘Male Contraception’. Best Practice & Research: Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology. 28(6), p845-857. 

Cheney, E., Lambert, K., McIntosh, E. and Rzewnicki, F., 2019. Contraception Education And Reform Team – 2019 Report And Policy Proposal. Edinburgh: Buchanan Institute.

French, R.S., Geart, R., Jones, K., Glasier, A., Mercer, C.H., Datta, J., MacDowall, W., Palmer, M., Johnson, A.M. & Wellings. K. (2017). ‘Where do women and men in Britain obtain contraception? Findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3)’. BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health, p16-26. 

Hoggart, L. & Newton, V.L. (2013). ‘Young women’s experiences of side effects from contraceptive implants: a challenge to bodily control’. Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care. 21, 196-204.

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