Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sex in the News: Rhythm Method Woes

Now birth control can be as easy as not having sex two weeks out of every month! We no longer have to worry about -- wait, WHAT? No sex for half of every month?

You've probably heard of the rhythm method. Young people often receive a simplistic version of this complex birth control method i.e. "A woman can count the days since her last period and not have sex around the 14th day, which is when she ovulates." The method is often joked about -- after all, this is the only form of family planning approved by the Catholic Church. How many married childless Catholics do you know?

Of course, not all women ovulate on the 14th day, and (when practiced correctly) the rhythm method is a lot more complex than just counting days. The sympto-thermal method of family planning (which has evolved from "counting days") requires a woman to wake up at the same time every morning to take her temperature (called basal body temperature), monitor her cervical secretions, and keep a fertility calendar. During her two most fertile weeks of the month -- which other research suggests is when she'll want it the most -- the couple must abstain from sex. A recently released report on a German study reveals that, when practiced properly (one might say "religiously"), the method has a .6% failure rate, which is comparable with hormonal birth control.

But according to this article in the Scientific American, failure rates for normal couples are actually much higher. I know, I know, you're shocked. You thought that young women, some of whom can't even remember to take their pill at the same time every day, would simply jump at the chance to get up early on weekends and get all up-close and personal with their lady-juices. Not to mention the fact that it's a good way to get out of sex for half the month -- more, if you don't have sex during your period -- since, of course, women don't actually enjoy sex.

Okay, I'll be serious. The thing is, if you're willing (and have the leisure) to be diligent about it, fertility awareness is a great option. It means you don't have to put hormones into your body -- and the environment -- in order to effectively avoid getting pregnant. Fertility awareness over long periods of time is also of use when it comes to intentionally getting pregnant. I'd even go so far as to argue that charting her fertility can put a woman more in touch with her body and her sexuality. This is a family planning method that deserves a place in the adult birth control arsenal. For the average person, though, this isn't going to be the right option.

So, what do we tell the kids? Not the kids, so much as the teens: a book called Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen's Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body, which describes fertility cycles in detail, is stirring up debate among proponents of comprehensive sex ed. Some argue that giving teens too much information about their fertility cycles will lead them to have unprotected sex on days the believe they are "safe". Others say that young women should be given as much information as possible about their bodies, and support the book. Cycle Savvy doesn't go into detail about fertility charting or discuss in detail which days are less fertile. It contains no reference to any day of the month being "safe", and encourages young people to always use protection, describing fertility planning as a useful tool for adults.

All of that being said, I have a confession to make: as sex-educated as I am, I still consider the rhythm method when having sex. Not the fancy sympto-thermal method, either. I wouldn't say it's my primary birth control method, but I usually find myself counting days, as in "okay, I'm on day 15 of my 24 day cycle, what are the odds I'll get pregnant if something goes wrong?" And when I was younger, there was a point in time -- before my 17th birthday, when I went on the pill -- when I did use the so-called rhythm method as my sole form of birth control. If I'd had this book to explain to me just how complicated fertility awareness really is, maybe I'd have thought twice. I fail to see how arming girls with solid information about their own bodies could ever be a bad thing.


Sarah said...

Being-- theoretically --back on the market, I've been thinking recently about getting BC so that if and when I have sex with a guy, I'll be protected. (No babies for me at the current time, sadly!) I think I'd go with the Nuva Ring ( I know too many people who've been failed by the rhythm method.

Anonymous said...

To put it out there, I'm a child of folks who used the rhythm method, and a sex educator. If you are dedicated, it really does work. My parents were dedicated and, lo and behold, 2 children, both planned. Although I can't remember a prominently displayed thermometer in any aunts and uncles' rooms (there was in my parents'), I'm pretty sure they used it to, none of them had unplanned pregnancies or more than 2 children. As much flak as Catholics get for its pushing the rhythm method, I think it's a green alternative for a lot of people.

Besides, practicing the rhythm method doesn't mean you can't have sex on your fertile days, it just means that you can't have PIV sex without protection on those days. If you really want to have sex then, condoms can supplement (provided you're not following the Vatican's rules). And what guy in his right mind would be unwilling to get more blowjobs for a week or two per month?


figleaf said...

Back in the late, late 1970's I went to a presentation on the mucous/basal-temperature workshop put on by a friend who was pretty passionate about it.

Her take was that while manufactured methods were far more reliable, the process of tracking your cycles made you a lot more directly conscious of what's going on inside not only when things are going normally but also when something awry, as with early, late, or missing ovulation.

She was also pretty direct about the inconvenience -- for instance the developers of the mucous method recommended avoiding intercourse for a year (!) or two (!!!) to minimise confusion with other fluids.

Which, she agreed, was pretty whacky for sexually active women, but the developers also believed the method should be taught pretty early on before most girls ordinarily begin intercourse anyway.

I think *if* it were taught that way it would be a pretty good idea although I'd also strongly advocate the use of actual, reliable contraceptives as well.

To be honest I still have a very hard time imagining trusting a condom without *at least* also counting days. Condoms are better contraception than nothing. But that's not saying very much. (Which is a big reason I got my first vasectomy in my early 20s.) Developing a more-than-intuitive sense of your cycles, early enough for it not to intrude on your love life, would help a lot.

Especially in the face of Frank's point that "no intercourse" isn't the same thing as "no sex."

Great post, Amanda.


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