Lili Loofbourow wishes ‘we lived in a world that encouraged women to attend to their bodies’ pain signals instead of powering through like endurance champs. It would be grand if women (and men) were taught to consider a woman’s pain abnormal,’ But a woman’s pain is normal. The Church is the first to teach us that ‘no one can escape the experience of suffering’ (CCC 385) and women are no exception.
Suffering is Normal for Women
Women suffer more than men. Apart from the various studies that observe this, we can appeal to common sense to find evidence of this fact. It is normal for a woman to menstruate. Menstruation is, normally, painful. A woman undergoes regular blood loss for a number of days each month – this would be completely abnormal for a man, and it is completely average for women. Being a woman involves regular pain.
The problem arises when ‘normal’ is used to signify ‘not a problem’ which in turn is misunderstood as a diminishment of the suffering.
Just because menstruation is completely normal, it does not mean it’s not painful. Just because it is common for a woman to be debilitated on a regular basis by her perfectly functioning body, it does not mean that we cannot accommodate for the additional needs that this state of affairs demands. Just because something is the status quo, it does not mean that we cannot make provisions to alleviate discomfort.
But equally, just because we can and should make provisions to alleviate pain, we do not need to obliterate feminine pain to the point where female nature becomes ‘abnormal’. Women who present the doctors with the common side effects of menstruation – pain, anemia, vomiting, depression – are overwhelmingly prescribed the contraceptive pill as a ‘cure’.
Fertility is painful for women, and it is pleasurable for men. In order for a child to be born, a man must ejaculate once. A woman can bring a child into the world experiencing no pleasure and inordinate pain. She will have nine months gestation, then she will risk her own life and experience extreme pain in delivering the child, after which she will bleed for weeks and suffer discomfort and sleep deprivation by using her own body to keep the child alive in its first months of life. This process is so powerful that it causes a long-lasting change to the very morphology of the woman’s brain.
Female fertility is disproportionately more burdensome than male fertility; this reality reflects the words of God ‘to the woman’ in Genesis: ‘I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, you will give birth to your children in pain.’This does not mean that women must suffer in silence. It does not mean that women cannot experience pleasure. But it is a fact of nature that a man cannot reproduce without pleasure, and a woman cannot reproduce without pain. To suggest otherwise seems patently sexist. To aim for a paradigm where female fertility is pain-free seems at best naive, at worst to downright deny the extreme physical and psychological sacrifice of women who choose to bring new life to the world, in counterdistinction to men. Instead of aiming to sterilise and drug women to the point where their pain is considered ‘abnormal’, we should build a culture where women can openly talk about pain and live with the burden of feminine fertility – and ultimately discover the joy that that suffering, like all suffering male or female, brings.
Doctors are systematically prescribing mid-to-long term sterilisation for women, who are increasingly reporting negative side effects and dissatisfaction with hormonal contraception. Many women on the Pill are not in need of contraception, but they are told that the only way to manage their fertility-related pain is to take drugs to make themselves infertile. Even if they don’t want or need to be infertile. Loofbourow points out that it takes on average nearly ten years for endometriosis to be diagnosed, but she does not link this to the widespread use of hormonal contraceptives, classed as a Group 1 carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation, as a ‘cure’ for fertility-related pain.
We cannot deny the fact that any normal, fertile woman regularly experiences pain and that any normal, fertile, man, does not, and then at the same time expect feminine pain to be adequately diagnosed and researched. Crucially, we cannot fail to educate an entire generation on what constitutes normal femininity, on what kind of pain is normal, on what causes it, on what provisions can be made (beyond sterilisation), and then complain about ‘physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.’
It’s dishonest to ignore the role the Pill plays in socialising women to ignore physical sensations in the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Our society has a crisis when it comes to reproductive health education. NFP is still incorrectly defined as the Rhythm Method by reputable media outlets. Creighton, Billings, Marquette – these are not mainstream methods of fertility planning, these are not words that form part of common parlance. The vast majority of women have no idea how to identify their ovulation until they are consciously trying for a baby, they have no idea what luteal means, they have no idea about magnesium and iron deficiency.
NFP is the only method that educates women on what is actually normal, that doesn’t aim to get rid of the need to accommodate for normal pain in an attempt to masculinise women. Crucially, it is the only method that strictly requires a trained practitioner to follow your individual symptoms so that you can identify not just what is anatomically normal but what is normal for you. It is the only method that legitimises women’s unique needs, that does not ask them to take drugs or rely on an app or a GP, but that provides them with an expert that assists them on a one-to-one, in-the-flesh basis, in taking charge of their fertility as they see fit for their own particular needs in each particular moment in time.
And perhaps most radically, NFP is the only method of fertility planning that involves the man in the woman’s pain. It is the only method of fertility planning where the pursuit of sexual pleasure is facilitated by the conscious acknowledgment of the woman’s physical sensations, not by their suppression.