By Lara Sokoloff
Her health insurance didn’t cover it, Robin* ’13 said.
“The ones that are covered by insurance aren’t the best ones for your body,” she said. “It’s like you’re jeopardizing your health for something that’s a lower price.”
Robin began using birth control in March 2011, but decided to stop treatment shortly after for personal reasons. When she decided to resume using the medication, she and her family sought a more cost-efficient option. However, the cheaper method caused Robin’s period to become irregular and “messed up my body system completely,” she said. Robin now takes free samples every month from her gynecologist’s office.
Another gynecologist Dr. Maria Ottavi (Sam ’12) said she has seen a marked increase in the use of contraception in her Santa Monica practice, which she attributes to greater parental involvement.
“The new generation of parents are more open and more proactive about getting their daughters on birth control,” she said. “Many moms took the pill themselves, versus previous generations where they hadn’t.”
The Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that works to advance reproductive health, estimates a 10 percent increase in the use of contraception between 1995 and 2008. It also reported a sharp decline in teen pregnancy from 117 to 68, out of 1000, as a result.
Ottavi prescribes various methods of contraception, including pills, the NuvaRing and intrauterine devices. These hormonal methods regulate the user’s period and prevent pregnancy, but do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Efficiency rates range from 97-99 percent, she said. The method best for the patient is determined by her medical history, age and life style.
Planned Parenthood offers similar contraceptive options, said Serena Josel of Planned Parenthood.
California law does not require parental consent to attain any form of contraception, and Josel encouraged teens to take responsibility for their sexual health.
Alicia* ’12 went to Planned Parenthood for her current method of birth control. It was recommended that she use Implanon, an insertion in the upper arm that provides a steady stream of hormones. Alicia used “the patch,” an alternative birth control mechanism, during sophomore year. She said it was relatively low maintenance, but she experienced complications when she began smoking in addition to using it.
She said she experienced some side effects from taking both the patch and Implanon. Taking the patch lightened her period, caused her her breasts to grow slightly larger and increased her appetite, which led to weight gain, she said. Implanon likewise caused her to go up a cup size and cleared her skin. However, it also lengthened her period and caused her to have cramps, she said.
Alicia initially went on birth control because her parents encouraged her to start. She was not sexually active at the time, but instead wanted experience, using it to learn which method worked best for her body.
“When I was sexually active, I had actually already gone off birth control [the patch,]” she said. “When I entered into a stable relationship, I realized it was a necessity.”
Alicia has had to take Plan B, an emergency contraceptive known as the “morning after pill,” at least four times. She ultimately decided to go back on birth control because of her experience with Plan B, she said.
“It makes you feel horrible, it’s just chemicals inside of your body, ripping everything out,” she said. “You can be in an extreme amount of pain, it changes your cycle and you just have to deal with that [for a] week, week and a half waiting to get your period. I don’t think any girl should have to suffer through those weeks.”
Josel said that Plan B is highly effective if taken within 12 hours of intercourse, but becomes less and less effective the longer you wait. She said women may experience some side effects, but nothing long term.
“The most common side effects include nausea and vomiting,” Ottavi said. “It’s like four birth control pills in one dosage.”
School psychologist Dr. Sheila Siegel said students most often come to her with questions on contraception when they are looking for an emergency contraceptive method like Plan B.
“Sometimes students write me from college,” Siegel said. “But it’s usually when they trip up. They don’t really ask me what type to use. It’s usually just ‘oops.’”
Ottavi said about 85 percent of her patients seek birth control to prevent pregnancy, but 15 percent take it purely for health reasons.
Jane* ’12 began taking birth control to clear her skin, but stopped recently due to abdominal pains and fatigue. She began taking the pill six months ago, and was happy with the effects it had up until recently.
Jane chose the pill over other medications because it was the least severe.
“According to my dermatologist, I would not be suffering from any side effects, so I thought it was a pretty safe bet to go with,” she said.
She said she had only minor additional side effects, as her breasts got slightly bigger around menstruation and her appetite increased. Her period had always been fairly regular, and was not affected by going on the pill.
Jane said that she researched her symptoms and attributes them to an allergy to gluten or dairy, or a side effect from the pill.
She stopped taking the pill three weeks after the abdominal pains began.
Zoe* ’13 began taking birth control a month ago to regulate her period. When she began getting her period every two or three weeks, she decided she had to do something about it, she said.
“I wanted more structure to it,” she said. “If you know you’re going to have it, you’re almost mentally prepared to have it and it’s not as stressful and annoying.”
Zoe said she has had very minimal side effects since she began taking the pill. She chose the pill because it is “definitely the least intrusive, and no one has to know that you’re on it.”
“It definitely raises eyebrows if you say you’re on it,” she said. “I’m definitely not having sex, but I would rather people not assume that I was. As least for a second they will think about that before they think I’m doing it for other reasons.”
Violet* ’12 has chosen not to start taking birth control because of negative judgment from her peers, she said.
“I think teens can be really mean when it comes to this kind of thing, and I would just never want to put myself in a position where I could be judged in a bad way,” she said.
Violet’s family’s values have also shaped her views, she said.
“My family is pretty conservative,” she said. “My parents always hint at how bad it is to do anything sexual before marriage, and I guess I’ve kind of adopted their view. I have friends who [have sex] now, and while I don’t think it’s morally wrong, it’s just not for me.”
Robin, who has begun following the political debate surrounding the issue, also said the generally negative stigma surrounding birth control upsets her.
“It’s frustrating that people make assumptions that people who take birth control are being promiscuous or using it for the wrong reasons,” she said. “It’s kind of offensive when a huge percentage of the girls on birth control are not the way they’re describing them.”
Counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek attributes the stigma at school to a false conception of hyper-sexuality.
“When people are thinking that everyone else is having sex, and someone is taking the pill, their suspicions are confirmed,” she said. “But this whole idea that people just go and have sex, I think it’s a myth.”
Siegel said she thinks the stigma has lessened because of an acceptance that women are more sexually active than they used to be.
“Oral sex. People didn’t even talk about oral sex until [President] Clinton,” she said. “It was the last thing you did, and you certainly didn’t talk about it.”
Alicia said she thinks a lot of people think you have to be sexually active to be using birth control, or that you have to not want to use a condom to be on birth control.
“In reality it’s something people use for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “By choosing to take birth control, you’re assuming a responsibility of your sexuality that a lot of teenagers are unwilling to do because of the stigma or because they aren’t informed. Taking birth control doesn’t mean you’re a slut, it just means you’re taking an extra step.”
Ottavi emphasized that taking birth control should be used in conjunction with a condom as a back-up form of contraception.
“It’s my favorite speech to give,” she said. “But kids usually know from sex education class.”
Hormonal methods of contraception do not prevent against sexually transmitted diseases. Josel, of Planned Parenthood, said that condoms must be used in order to prevent contracting a sexually transmitted disease, although the only true method to prevent it is abstinence.
“I don’t think that students here are that stupid,” Bek said. “We just talk about it so much in health classes, but people will do what they choose to do. With this age comes the feeling of being invincible, that even if it happens to somebody else, it will not happen to me because I’m special.”
Alicia initially chose not to go on birth control because she didn’t want to give herself an excuse for not using a condom. She thinks a sexually transmitted disease would be “a million times worse than getting pregnant.”
“If you make the decision to be sexual, you certainly ought to make a decision to use birth control,” Siegel said. “It’s kind of denial to have sex and then feel bad about getting birth control.”
— additional reporting by Susan Wang
names have been changed