Why I have never taken the contraceptive pill

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The Independent Online

I have never taken the contraceptive pill. The capricious internal voice that assembles my so-called principles advised strongly against, just as it vetoed an evil-eye tattoo, applying for membership of the Groucho Club, and writing poetry after the age of 18.

I have never taken the contraceptive pill. The capricious internal voice that assembles my so-called principles advised strongly against, just as it vetoed an evil-eye tattoo, applying for membership of the Groucho Club, and writing poetry after the age of 18.

My stance on the oral contraceptive is a lonely one. In PR terms, the pill emerges as the social history hero of the 20th century – the harbinger of feminism. Single-handedly, so the buzz goes, the pill liberated women from the manacles of their unruly fertility, propelled them into the workplace and offered up an unlimited diet of guilt-free, recreational sex. And the pill's profile has remained buoyant: this year it's been the Liz Hurley of pharmaceuticals, flooding our papers with juicy headlines. In March it was revealed that a Somerset branch of Tesco had decided to hand out free morning-after pills to rueful teenagers; next came news of a broader-based scheme allowing chemists to sell the morning-after pill without prescription. Then a new pill was trumpeted, one that allowed women to have just three periods a year. And in a particularly juicy news double whammy it was revealed that Liz Hurley became pregnant after a course of antibiotics she took interfered with the efficiency of her contraceptive pill.

With all these column inches, I was not surprised to learn last week that the take-up rate of the pill among young women has risen sharply – and the number of unwanted pregnancies has fallen. "Hurrah!" I hear you say. "Three cheers for the wonder pill!" Except that, like other modern miracle drugs (MMR and Prozac spring to mind), the dazzling silver lining of the oral contraceptive cannot quite conceal the clouds.

For starters, according to some reports our waterways are now chock-full of oestrogen that's expelled in the urine of women taking the pill. The harmful effect of this on aquatic life forms is well documented and it's thought likely that the excess hormones are having an equally peculiar effect on the human population. And then there's the group of women who fought (and lost, a fortnight ago), a court case against the manufacturers of a particular brand of pill in the belief that it had triggered the embolisms that they, or a relative, had suffered. It was impossible to prove in court that the pill had been the main contributory cause of the blood clots – but, equally, as the women pointed out, it was impossible to prove that it was not.

When only a tiny percentage of the people prescribed a drug claim to be adversely affected by it, the weight of statistical evidence tends to tell against the plaintiffs. The judge concludes that since hundreds of thousands of other users haven't keeled over, there's no case.

Interestingly, when it comes to illegal drugs the official reaction is exactly the opposite. If you die after taking ecstasy, no one, from the police to the coroner to the tabloid press, is in any doubt that it was the drug that killed you – even though you are the only one out of several million people popping it that weekend to expire. It's all so much clearer when there's a goatee-bearded youth to lock away for manslaughter and there aren't billions of pounds of drug corporation money at stake. But I digress.

My antipathy to the pill doesn't come from any fear that it will polish me off – there are many broader avenues for the Reaper's approach. No, I don't like the pill because it seems innately bonkers to me to take a delicate, hormonal creature and pump her full of artificial hormones. It takes long enough as an owner-occupier to come to terms with the peculiar chemistry of the female body. The last thing a woman needs if she is truly interested in understanding and controlling her reproductive cycle is to suppress its monthly vagaries with a man-made version.

There is no way that a woman who habitually uses the pill can learn to identify the signals of ovulation and pinpoint the fertile days when unprotected sex should be avoided (or gone for hammer and tongs, depending on broodiness). But a woman who can read the signs can happily rut three weeks out of four without any need for contraception.

I know you could argue that none of this matters if a woman on the Pill can't get pregnant anyway – but try telling that to Liz Hurley or the other women I know who've got up the duff while taking the pill. Far from enabling you to take charge of your fertility, the pill renders you utterly ignorant of the workings of your own womb.

To don my conspiracy-theory sisterhood dungarees for a moment, I also think the pill is in part a male plot to turn women into battery-farmed, permanently available sex machines without the inconvenient gore and dangerous mood swings of the free-range variety. I am not suggesting every female should turn earth-mother and dance round standing stones in a mass celebration of stomach cramps and blood-soaked knickers, but I think menstruation is a fair exchange for the threatening, witchy power of fertility. And the vile energy of PMT finds its compensation in the incredible surges in desire that accompany ovulation and the cessation of bleeding. The pill, by contrast, saps your libido and makes you fat. End of argument.

Skirts and what lies beneath

Of course there was a golden, innocent time before the oral contraceptive and the sexual revolution, when every woman looked like Doris Day and all men resembled Cary Grant, and no one had sex anyway. I refer to the Fifties. The decade permeated most of my waking hours last week, when I was unexpectedly left in charge of a photo shoot that took its styling from that era. The idea was to create a pastiche of the famous photograph of two laughing women sitting on a seaside balustrade with the wind billowing out their skirts. The only difference was that in our picture the women's friendship would be a bit more intimate; in short, they would be engaged in a passionate kiss. Previous to this shoot, I had always been slightly sceptical about the stylist's profession, secretly feeling that they were mistaking a talent for accessorising for a job. How hard could it be to say, "No, you look better in the black shoes"? Pretty damn hard, as I soon found out. First of all I had to find the shoes, and the dress, and the skirt etc: all of them period perfect and in the models' sizes. Then I had to find models and get them to Brighton and make them put the shoes on and snog each other. And all on a budget of tuppence ha'penny.

If you're not from Vogue or Elle, it can be a pretty humiliating experience phoning up vintage clothes shops and asking whether they'll lend garments to an obscure magazine staging a mildly salacious photo shoot. The owners of Steinberg & Tolkien on the Kings Road said they "did not want to be associated with The Erotic Review". Perfectly reasonable – so reasonable in fact, that I am driven to share some secrets of the London vintage clothing scene (gleaned over 20 years' avid collecting) with readers of the IoS (secrets I would not normally divulge, lest you beat me to the Thirties' chiffon tea-gown with its smattering of embroidered roses).

Here goes. The last shop on earth I would go to for a vintage bargain is Steinberg & Tolkien. Most items are average and everything is overpriced. It's the sort of place Kate Moss goes to because she's too rich and indolent for jumble sales. Fashion aficionados talk S&T up a storm as it protects them from divulging the real treasure troves, such as Cornucopia in Upper Tachbrook Street, SW1. In this packed emporium the patient rummager can unearth real treasure for a tenner. Then there's Blackout in Covent Garden's Endell Street; a smaller establishment, but the garments are more finely selected. This is the shop for a Forties velvet day-dress or a bias-cut satin evening gown. It is also the place where we found the perfect Fifties frocks for our seaside Sapphos. And I can exclusively reveal to footwear fetishists that the owner has just bought 3,000 pairs of unworn vintage shoes (mainly Fifties) from a warehouse sale in Canada, along with some pristine period handbags.

My other top tip is Eclectica in Camden Passage, the best shop for costume jewellery. And let me tell you, sweetie, once I'd trawled through these too, too delicious boutiques I was ab-sol-utely exhausted. Buggered. I don't know how the little darlings on the fashion mags do it!