Birth Control Thoughts

Every night around eight, for the past three weeks, I began to cower. I consider myself a strong woman, and this cowardice frustrated me. At 8:20 I bravely swallowed the pill. Some nights were good and that was the end of it. On the bad nights I stayed awake, uncomfortable in my skin, slightly nauseous and wondering if it could really be that tiny, unassuming pill that caused me to feel that way, or if it was just my imagination. I second guessed myself, led strongly by uncontrollable swells of estrogen-magnified emotion.
The decision to go back on birth control was not an easy one. From age 18, when I first walked into the clinic at my university to ask for birth control, I was unsure of myself. I was already considered a crazy teenage girl, and I had heard horror stories of how the pill affected women. Did I want to make things worse? No, I didn’t, but I was sexually active and I felt immense pressure from society to do something about it. I might not be shunned from sex altogether, but my parents, friends, and high-school sex education classes all demanded one thing from me: responsibility. Since that first moment of youthful responsibility I have been on and off birth control for most of my adult life. Low-dose pills, the ring, the patch and the shot. The choice is overwhelming. It’s strange, these options are supposed to offer some kind of freedom and yet I feel confined by them.
This is my minority plague, or at least one of them.
The assignment to write a native anthropology in an auto-style excited me. I could practice a bit more honesty and let my creativity peek out into academia. But my academic self resists any foray into the colorful world of description, let alone emotion. Within a day I had spiraled out of the confidence of notes and citations into a much less clinical, more personal realm. Be vulnerable, I was told. Vulnerability is nothing new to me, but the question was what I should be vulnerable about. My professor said, “Think about what you are a native of.” But I heard, “What minority groups are you native of?”
Anthropology fetishizes the exotic. Before it valued societies that were different than the dominant culture. Now it values the change in the individual as a representative of the dominant culture.(1) This gives me two choices. I can write about what I am that no one else is, my minority oddities, or I can write about how I am just like everybody else in a way that is so sensual and exotic that it forces the reader to consider their self for the first time. Feminism can be depressing, celebrating the ways in which every individual must be marginalized.
I do not feel any direct pressure to take birth control. My fiancee is supportive, recognizing that it is my choice, and my government agrees with him, for now. The pressure I feel is subtle, ingrained through years of after-school specials. I have to choose whether to subject my body to the awkward swelling, dryness and tenderness of hormone control. I have to choose whether I want to have bareback sex with the man I love or maintain a semblance of sanity. These are tough decisions, but the modern woman must make them. Sometimes it is barely a decision at all. The taking of birth control is expected, and supposedly the side-effects are a minimal price to pay for the whorish crime of actually desiring sex.
The first time that I bought birth control in Istanbul I was shocked. I went into the pharmacy with my fiance and brazenly asked the pharmacist for yasmin. It was a name that I recognized from the United States and I had read that it was available in Turkey. I didn’t know the Turkish words for birth control and explaining with gross motions that I wanted a pregnancy test the week before had been enough cross-cultural fun for me. The pharmacist didn’t flinch. She walked out from behind the counter, opened a cupboard, and pulled out a month’s supply of the pill. It cost 16 lira. I was shocked. I had not expected it to be such an easy task. In the United States there had always been the scraping together of enough money to pay for an exam, opening my legs for a stranger to swab, and getting the valued piece of paper that my insurance may or may not cover. Then it was finding the sixty dollars each month to pay for these preciously guarded pills. I had no idea that it could be easier. I wondered vaguely about the Turkish women who bought these pills. Were they married? How did they figure out the proper usage if they were not prescribed? I realized that birth control in Turkey, while not entirely different than birth control in the U.S., is different enough to be notable. Better or worse? I didn’t have enough information to make a judgement, just enough to jolt me into the realization that yes, there are different ways.
I am a woman, and these are my experiences, but they are not the experiences of every woman. Does taking birth control give me any authority to speak about sex, desire, social pressures and medical experience? The diversity within the field is greater than what binds us as common. The modern woman, in many countries, is faced with the same decisions as I am, but the factors that weigh her decision are infinitely varied. Cultural taboos against sex, access to medical care, and whether there is a need for a prescription. The list grows the more that I delve into it and I find that I have no right to speak for women just because I happen to be one. Some women are thrilled by their access to birth control. For some it may not even cause internal debate. Being inside the question does not give you the answer to the question, assuming that there is actually a question to be asked. Perhaps there is just a collection of experiences.
A main concern in modern anthropology is the misrepresentation and exploitation of groups of people by anthropologists in the name of research. I wonder whether we honestly believe that this can be fixed by giving preference to native anthropology. It is naive to believe that an individual within a group represents that entire group, can fully understand the experiences of the group, or due to in-group loyalty would never exploit their own culture. If native anthropology is meant to protect the people being studied I say that it is not a valid solution. I am a woman. That does not mean that the oppression that I experience beneath the choice of birth control pill is representative of all women. Perhaps I am the minority within the minority. If we are supposed to advocate for the minority, how can we ever be sure that we are advocating for the right underdog?
Darren Ranco and Nancy Scheper-Hughes both described anthropology as a sort of predatory, hunting act. The anthropologist goes out and brings something, usually information and understanding, back for their own community. But who are we returning our spoils to? As an academic practice we are loyal to our academic institutions. We are loyal to our professors, colleagues and publishers. Vine Deloria claims that we should be loyal to the people we are researching. There are all of these questions of who the research serves, of authorship and authority, but not enough questions about the reader. Who is supposed to read our stories? Are they meant for professors? For lawmakers? For the researched? For my own community? The reader should influence the creation of a text as much as the author and the subject does. At the end of her speech Cecil King tells a story of how Native Americans need to protect their own culture before allowing it to be extinguished by others. Their culture needed to be recognized internally before it could be shared. I think this presents a quite valid audience. If an anthropology is written from the inside, for the group, then a dialogue can begin, and an identity can be created. This paper is directed towards women. It is me sending out a pulse and wondering if anyone will echo it. It is not meant to change society. It is not meant to change women, or men, or pharmaceutical practices, but that does not mean that it is worthless. Worth does not have to be measured in change. The beginnings of understanding are worthwhile.
I lasted two weeks this time. It was all of the usual symptoms. I had no desire to have sex (ironic considering their purpose), and the world grew ever more faint. I cried at television shows and experienced fits of uncontrollable irritation, bordering on rage. These are the hormones and emotions that are used to discredit women as feeling too much. I understood why people might say that women are crazy. I felt crazy. However, I felt nothing like a woman. I feel like a woman when I am loving and tender. I feel like a woman when I suffer empathy and desire. These things are emotions. The surges that I experienced while in a hormonal haze were not emotions. There was nothing feminine about them.
The night I skipped my first pill I felt such dejection. I couldn’t make it. I wasn’t strong enough to conquer these hormones. Within four hours the failure was worthwhile. I was no longer on the verge of tears. I wanted to have sex with my fiance. I am back to normal now, at least by my own standards. By society’s judgements? Well, I hid my momentary lapse in sanity so well that hardly anyone commented.
If, as Scheper-Hughes suggests, a society is revealed in what it rejects then the anthropological society reveals itself by rejecting the emotions of females as mad, as if we cannot control them, and as if by giving them allowance we surrender all pretenses of objectivity. I must say that while in my hormone-induced madness, even in the darkest rage of the pills, I was still able to remain aware of different positions, and possible bias that I was experiencing. The question of whether I acted on these biases or not is less important than whether I recognize them now, in the retelling of my experience. Now I can write my explanation of the insanity inflicted by choice, a dilemma born disproportionately by women, and if I am vulnerable enough and honest enough then perhaps it will be a valid piece of work. Perhaps it will add something to the field. Will it be anthropological? Perhaps. Will it be authentic? Yes, and for me that is much more important.

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