College is a strange, conflicting sort of time. I remember how refreshingly liberating it felt to find a good paying guest accommodation, and then discover that it came with a side order of potentially good friends. It’s been a few years now, but I remember the initial excitement pretty well. It was an important time after all. We were beginning to inch towards our twenties, and life was meant to be free and fun, adventurous but not entirely foolhardy. We wouldn’t be rash, but we wouldn’t be tame either. We fed off each other’s belief systems, revelling in the fact that suddenly conversation could revolve around sex and politics and food and tampon brands and families and pets, without reservations and the risk of judgment. Pretty wonderful, really, and also, as we were bound to find out, deceptively comforting.
The thing is, some taboos stay taboos until you actively break them. Sometimes, you can’t ease into things passively, expecting them to take care of themselves and hoping that all the little uncomfortable feelings you’ve been conditioned to carry like giant baggage will just go away.
So as we found our niche and our friends, we also realized that while conversations dripping with innuendo and giggles and personal anecdotes about sexual encounters of all kinds were all right, there was never really a good time to talk about birth control. The discomfort attached to even the idea of actively preventing pregnancy was equally important and equally ignored. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Condoms and their importance made regular appearance, but pills did not. Neither did other preventive measures. About which my friends and I probably still remain partially clueless.
But a sexually active life almost demands the knowledge of every problem it comes with. Back then though, we didn’t know that, or knew it but couldn’t be bothered much. I remember the first time the need to know presented itself, we were pretty much at sea. I say “we”, though it was of course a single individual’s experience, because the problem was handled as a group. This wasn’t the first time too. All our romantic, professional and other upheavals were always dissected, discussed, analysed and solved as group activities. It sounds maddening now, but back then, it was basically like having the perfect support system.
And so, a condom broke. And we were worried in a kind of frantic way that refuses to acknowledge the larger issue– that like the use of condoms, this was something we should have always known. No one, except fictional characters, had prepared us for this. And that’s not exactly the preparation one requires. We knew of the basics, picking up hearsay and TV quips to piece together a haphazard kind of jigsaw puzzle with several missing pieces. We pooled in our resources. Someone had heard of Pill 72, another added iPill to the mix. There was a third who was convinced that the entire thing is exactly like having an abortion, just a really really small one. Everyone was quite firm about what they thought about the entire thing.
What we didn’t know were facts. We didn’t even know who’d buy the thing. So we did the best we could, and went together, in a large enough group. It was both good and bad. A group, furtively buying a birth control pill, meant a case of nervous giggles. But birth control isn’t anything to giggle about, is it? I look back now and wonder if I even knew how serious the entire thing was, and the potential it had to throw our bodies out of sync.
This initial levity also meant that next time (and there was a next time. In fact, there were many next times), we started getting better at the buying. In fact, when the first time with the morning after pill didn’t lead to all the horrible side effects we had heard it would, we became a bit too free with it, and even then, we didn’t really check out the facts. We didn’t discuss what could happen when our friend once forgot to take the second pill of the two pill course and started the entire course all over again. We didn’t even bother much when another friend took the morning after pills twice in the same period cycle. It was working, no one was pregnant and no one felt the need to faint or throw up.
Once again, the need to learn more came with a new problem. One of us found our bodies acting funny, with small, irregular bleeding episodes which didn’t quite add up to a whole menstruation cycle. Once again, we discussed and Googled and loaded ourselves with misinformation hiding between facts. This time though, we needed to visit a gynaecologist. After all, our friend was bleeding, and no amount of to-and-fro was going to stop that.
Before that episode, I had never really understood how embarrassing it can be for a single woman in this country to visit a gynaecologist; how easy it is to come in with the simplest of problems and feel like you are doing something wrong. The women around us in the clinic were married, and in different stages of pregnancy. Some were older. But us? We were 20 somethings and uneasy, like we had no business to be there unless we’d been up to no good.
Well, the gynaecologist set things straight for us. We got a dose of information, medicine and well, lecture. She wasn’t pleased when her first question (“Are you sexually active?”) got a sheepish “Yes” as a response. In fact, she looked quite upset herself. It wasn’t an easy visit, and while other problems cropped up, none of us went back to her.
Disapproving gynaecologist aside, we got our information that day and came away relieved that no one was fatally ill. What bothers me now is our timing. We would wait for the push and the shove before accessing information about these pills. Every single time, finding out a little more was precipitated by an emergency. Sometimes, we even preferred half-baked knowledge to contacting an informed professional. Why? We were having sex, and condoms never embarrassed us, so why did the idea of going on the pill? How is it that we had known almost nothing about what is a very important part of sexual life?
When it comes to ‘sex’ or ‘sexuality’ education, already lacking and incomplete, birth control pills and emergency contraceptive pills are sadly ignored. In fact, hardly any woman has any knowledge about them that doesn’t come from things she’s heard or seen. Most do what we did, and wait till it becomes impossible not to find out more. Considering, though, that these are not just another non-invasive birth control method, but medicine to be ingested, choosing them comes with a responsibility towards our bodies.