Book Review: With Holly Grigg-Spall’s “Sweetening the Pill,” Madwomen Shoved Back in the Attic

“When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race.” ~ Margaret Sanger

imageIf you follow HalfWayMidLife on Twitter, you’ve seen how heated the past few days have been getting . . . all over a new book by Holly Grigg-Spall entitled, “Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control.”

Ms. Lindsay Beyerstein’s article over at Slate Double X does an absolutely unmatchable job of dissecting the book for what it is — an ideologue’s treatise full of anecdotal evidence and void of legitimate facts. Therefore, I will leave that level of my criticism wholly to the link through. Read it and come back to me.

Phew, I missed you! What took you so long? Stop for a refill on the coffee? I understand completely. Now back to business.

So, let’s take for granted that Ms. Grigg-Spall is a soapbox shouter with nothing of substance to her arguments and move on to the second layer of analysis.

Because here’s the thing: almost everything we put in our body has possible side effects. Spoiler alert for TMI: every time I take Amoxicillin, I get mad diarrhea on the first day. In my opinion, a couple of hours running back and forth to the porcelain throne is a small price to pay for a quick and easy recovery from a head cold. If these ‘Family Planning Feminists’ are truly pro-choice and just all about educating the public, I find it deeply suspicious that they choose to focus on reproductive health drugs as their example of ‘medical patriarchal capitalism.’

Grigg-Spall and her ilk fancy themselves victims of some grand conspiracy in which any objection to their lifestyle, even a simple, “No thanks, the Pill is working for me,” is The Man’s doing. You see, controlling our periods is misogyny itself! Again, I find it suspect that the women making these arguments are the ones with reasonably well-functioning, cis bodies — just as those who advocate vegan hair products ‘conveniently’ live within five minutes of a Fresh Market and perpetually have $60 in their wallets.

Do you have PCOS? A disability inhibiting your ability to keep up with menstrual hygiene? Endometriosis? Severe PMS symptoms? As a “good” feminist, you should be managing these issues with some of this nebulous pseudo-science. That Grigg-Spall doesn’t recognize her own deep-seeded misogyny, which reveals itself in the suggestion that women’s minds are controlled by their hormones and how their menstrual cycles are managed, is mind-boggling.

Need further evidence that this ‘camp’ has no grasp on legitimate science? Check out this exchange (HalfWay is the sec again, take the time to read the link through, totally worth it):

Calling all women for an experiment… #periods…

6:46am – 2 Sep 13

@BalanceWellness Are you kidding me with the “masculine is linear?” Men have hormonal “cycles” — they’re just longer than 28 days.

@HalfWayMidLife the masculine principle is linear, men have both masculine/feminine within them. Would love to hear about men’s cycles

2:54am – 9 Sep 13

The very women counseling their readers/followers to drastically change theirlifestyles don’t even seem capable of taking off their mood rings long enough to perform a cursory Google search!

According to a mid-2000s study by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, 71 percent of women surveyed do not enjoy getting their period each month. Their reasons vary and are not, however much “Sweetening the Pill” would have you believe, a mindless, group-think product of the corporate ‘machine.’

Margaret Sanger at the first birth-control clinic in the United States, 1916.

Margaret Sanger at the first birth-control clinic in the United States, 1916.

But still the deepest question remains: are Family Planning advocates like Grigg-Spall actively anti-feminist or simply blithely ignorant of most women’s (and, very key for this instance, trans-people’s) life experiences? Perhaps it is a little of both. Certainly Grigg-Spall herself shows no interest in the factual integrity of her work in this interchange with Dr. Chelsea Polis, the epidemiologist at USAID:

Will read #sweeteningthepill w/epidemiological lens. More dialogue on HC effects wld be helpful; inaccurate use of data wld not be helpful.

4:36pm – 9 Sep 13

@cbpolis It’s not a text book Chelsea, I’m afraid, nor do I have any obligation to write a text book.

@hollygriggspall My, U R defensive! Who asked 4 a text book? I simply expect solid use of evidence on a subject of global health importance.

7:23pm – 9 Sep 13

@hollygriggspall …particularly when you are making blanket health claims about #contraceptive methods and attacking funders such as BMGF.

7:24pm – 9 Sep 13

But regardless, the desire to cosign women, and only women, once again to a day-to-day slavery to their every bodily function . . . to call this the true feminism . . . is to spit in the face of those whose femaleness is tied to their actions, not their excretions.

3 responses to “Book Review: With Holly Grigg-Spall’s “Sweetening the Pill,” Madwomen Shoved Back in the Attic

  1. Hi Ann,

    I have much to take issue with in your post, such as the implication in your conclusion that any woman who would eschew hormonal contraception is consigning herself to “a day-to-day slavery to their every bodily function.” We must agree to disagree on this point. Some women may feel this way, others do not.

    Now, to facts specifically related to one statement: “Do you have PCOS? A disability inhibiting your ability to keep up with menstrual hygiene? (NOTE: This is an odd way to characterize PCOS as it is a condition of disturbed ovulation and, therefore, infrequent periods.) Endometriosis? Severe PMS symptoms? As a “good” feminist, you should be managing these issues with some of this nebulous pseudo-science.”

    That you and many others cannot conceive of effective, evidence-based treatments for any menstrual cycle disorder – PCOS, endometriosis, heavy bleeding, irregular cycles, severe PMS – beyond hormonal birth control, does not negate the fact that these treatments exist. Research endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior of The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research ( at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, would be astounded to have her four decades of research and clinical practice dismissed as “nebulous pseudo-science.”

    This is a fact: Hormonal birth control does not fix or resolve menstrual cycle disorders; it masks symptoms without addressing the underlying hormonal imbalance.

    Take one example. How might one treat PCOS, or Anovulatory Androgen Excess (AAE) as Dr. Prior refers to it, without using hormonal birth control? Here is an excerpt from an article explaining her treatment protocol:

    “The basic problem with AAE is an inherited tendency for disturbed ovulation, excess male hormone production and insulin resistance. The therapy that I have found successful is cyclic progesterone that helps counteract and to lower chronically high estrogen levels, balances the ovary-brain feedback, produces monthly cycles and decreases the skin effects (severe acne)of the higher male hormones. The second part of the therapy is spironolactone that blocks the male hormone action at the hair follicles and oil glands. The final part of treatment is regular exercise, good nutrition and avoiding sweets; metformin can be added if needed for diabetes risk and excessive insulin production.”

    For women with PCOS/AAE who want a resolution of their condition, not the stop-gap provided by the pill, and regular ovulatory cycles that will allow them to conceive if or when they wish without fertility interventions, this evidence-based medical science is good news.

    Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword to Sweetening the Pill. I’m a veteran pro-choice sexual and reproductive health advocate, with a special interest in menstrual cycle education and non-hormonal contraceptive methods.

    • Thank you for your detailed comments . . . A quality missing in the Twitter discussions Ms. Grigg-Spall is engaging in (unfortunately).

      Point of clarification: disability is separate from PCOS in the list of possible menstrual issues, not a description of such.

      I hope my readers understand that I advocate for choice in all its forms. Family planning and non-hormonal BC may indeed be working wonderfully for many women, and even if they weren’t, each woman individually chooses her health plan.

      What deeply disturbs me about anti-BC advocates is their total condescension to those who don’t make the same choices that they do . . . Ones that, however you slice it, often entail a higher time commitment and greater risks of failure. Your very use of the phrase, “stop gap,” undermines those who successfully manage their conditions with hormonal BC and erases the validity of their experience.

      Other point of clarification. The “pseudo science” I speak about is that of the type I linked to with “energies” and “masculine/feminine” dichotomies. You would be hard pressed to find that kind of work’s “evidence base.” Likewise, “Sweetening the Pill” and Grigg-Spall herself have a profoundly shaky grasp on facts and rely heavily on anecdotal accounts.

      Furthermore, I again find it suspicious that your brand of supposed “pro-choice” advocates for natural BC choose to focus on the effects of a small group of drugs rather than taking your medical capitalist conspiracy theory to its natural conclusion . . . Which would, for example, include eschewing cough medicine as a simple “symptom masker.” Passing judgment on women’s reproductive choices remains the purview of those who would cosign women once again to the domestic sphere . . . Even when women, so-called “feminist” women, are its mouthpieces.

  2. Hi Ann,

    Thanks for the clarification that you meant PCOS and/or a disability inhibiting your ability to keep up with menstrual hygiene. If by the latter you mean heavy, irregular bleeding, this too can be treated and resolved with Cyclic Progesterone Therapy should a woman be interested in such an approach.

    I think our exchange illustrates well something I wrote about recently concerning how media discussions about menstruation and birth control are so often “fraught with conflict, suspicion and untested assumptions.” You can read about that here:

    I’m committed to learning how to have conversations with others whose perspectives are different than mine in a contemplative way that bridges the gaps between us, creating opportunities to work together to serve all women’s needs. It’s a work in progress. But, with this in mind, I offer an invitation. Would you be open to trying out some of the ideas I wrote about in the post I linked to? Do you think we might be able to create shared meaning, test our assumptions, and learn to speak across the polar values we appear to hold on these issues? I’d be willing to give it a try.

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