How Your iPhone Knows More About Your Vagina Than You
The Debrief: Tech companies have developed apps which track periods, monitor fertility and can even tell you when in the month you'll have your best orgasm. Is this the future of contraception and sexual health?
It’s easy to take the contraceptive pill for granted. I remember, as a teenager, when friends and friends of friends started to ‘go on’ it. The tiny foil-covered packets covered with orb-like pockets, in which blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small sugar-coated pills were held were a source of intrigue. For those who had picked them up on prescription their pill packs were more than medication, more than contraception – they were membership cards to a club that the rest of us would join at some point or another. They were symbols of something that woman long before us had fought hard for and that we would come to rely on.
However, in the last six decades since the pill’s invention there’s been a somewhat frustrating lack of innovation when it comes to contraception. In that time, we’ve invented mobile phones, the internet and microwaves. And yet, medically, the contraceptive pill for women is still seen as the default option for sexually active women by those prescribing it.
Amongst users, however, there has been somewhat of a backlash against the pill and its side effects which has manifested in the work of writers like Holly Grigg-Spall or more recently the #mypillstory hashtag which began trending on Twitter. The Office for National Statistics data shows that the number of women opting for LARCs (Long Acting Reversible Contraception) like the implant or the coil has also been steadily increasing in recent years and the use of fertility apps, or period trackers, have been on the rise for the last few years.
How tech replaced pharma
While there’s no official statistic for the number of women who are choosing to use technology as their contraceptive method of choice in the UK, anecdotally at least, this is happening increasingly. Despite the availability of LARCs, the pill and condoms on the NHS some women are turning to fertility tracker apps alongside fertility awareness and withdrawal as their contraceptive method of choice.
It seems that where big pharma has failed to develop new technology and provide more contraception options for women the tech industry has stepped up to fill a gap in the market. Apps like Natural Cycles, Clue, Kindara and Eve by Glow all market themselves as effective, non-hormonal methods of family planning which support the ‘fertility awareness’ method of contraception as advocated by the likes of Grigg-Spall.
We use our smartphones for pretty much everything – from calling our loved ones, firing off work emails and shopping to keeping track of our bank balances and working out where we are supposed to be and when – so why not for recording information about our periods and fertility?
You can now use your smartphone to keep track of your period’s flow in order to predict what kind of tampons you’ll need. You can use it to work out when you’re ovulating and whether or not that’s why you’re experiencing a headache, back pain or feeling hot.
Jennifer Tye from Glow tells me that they described themselves as a ‘data driven company’ who’s aim is to provide women with ‘information about their health so that they can make informed decisions.’ Glow now had more than 4 million users across all of the apps they provide. Eve is their cycle-tracker and sexual health tracker. ‘What Glow is doing fits with where technology sits today and what it has enabled – both in terms of being able to handle vast quantities of data to a degree that has never been possible before. These days I think it would be fair to say that people share more information with their smartphones than they do in their ten-minute appointment with their doctor.’
When data = power
Using an app to record your cycle and how you feel at different points during it is ‘empowering’ says Jennifer. ‘For instance if a woman is experiencing backache she can check the app and see how that correlates with other symptoms that she’s got or perhaps where she is in her cycle. What’s really exciting is that this enables you to decipher and interpret what’s happening with your body and then you can take action and make decisions accordingly.’
Crucially, as to why these apps have continued to rise in popularity Jennifer points out that even today ‘women’s health is an area that’s still relatively under studied.’ Beyond the fact that a period tracker could help you to work out when it is and isn’t safe to have unprotected sex it can offer other insights, you can log information from what your sex drive is to how much discharge you’re experiencing. The app can even tell you, based on where you are in your cycle, when you’re likely to get the best orgasms. ‘Frankly’ Jennifer says, ‘there are lots of elements of what women experience on a daily basis that, perhaps as progressive as our society is now, are still somewhat taboo – whether that’s menstrual health, sexual health, emotional health or mental health. So I think what women are really responding to is that our apps enable and empower women to acknowledge the things that they’re feeling.’
Should we be embracing these technological innovations which claim to bring us closer to our own bodies? Absolutely. Jennifer isn’t wrong about women’s health being understudied. The truth is that while we know how the contraceptive pill works, we actually know relatively little about how and why it affects women so differently. We also have a limited understanding of how and why women’s experiences of menstruation are so wide-ranging and varied.
In terms of whether we can rely on apps to support non-hormonal contraceptive methods like fertility awareness, perhaps, but like the pill, they’re far from perfect.
If it is practiced properly then the fertility awareness can be almost as effective as the pill at preventing pregnancy. In 2007 a study was published in the peer-reviewed journal of Human Reproduction which found that if ‘perfectly used’ the Fertility Awareness Method was 94% effective (only 0.6% of patients practicing it became pregnant). However, a woman’s lifestyle is also a factor. In order for fertility awareness to be possible you need to really trust the person you’re having sex with.
Sophie* is 28. She stopped taking the pill three years ago. ‘It made me so not myself’ she says. ‘I didn’t know which emotions were my own and I felt so out of control. I stopped wanting to have sex and I was anxious all the time’. Because of this experience she says she’ll ‘never touch hormonal contraception again’. She keeps track of her periods and monitors her discharge using a variety of apps, ‘I’m in a supportive long-term relationship so I feel safe doing it…but I can see how it would be different if you were single’, she says.
Another young woman I speak with tells me she’s also turned to tech for contraception. Emma* is 27, she’s also in a long term relationship. ‘I couldn’t take the pill anymore. It affected me too much’ she says, ‘I use the iPhone’s menstruation diary to keep track of things and when it’s not ‘safe’ my boyfriend and I either don’t have sex or pull out.’ Does she think this is a bit risky? ‘Perhaps but it’s been working for the last few years and all I know is that I’m a lot happier than I was on the pill.’
Therein lies the rub. As most mishaps human error is the most common reason for failure. The tech entrepreneurs who want to encourage us to track our periods believe that they can overcome this, however. If unprecedented amounts of data about the workings of women’s bodies are gathered then, they believe, reproductive medicine can be truly revolutionised.
One thing’s for sure – any technology that helps us better understand fertility and get a handle on how women’s bodies actually work can only be a good thing.
What we need is choice when it comes to contraception. As things stand many of us simply ‘put up with’ the pill or condoms because of a lack of other options. Let’s hope, one day, perhaps thanks to the data being collected by these apps, that’s no longer the case.
** names have been changed
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