top of page

What are the options for women besides pills, periods, pain or pregnancy?

A deep-dive into Davina McCall's Pill Revolution

By Ally McLaren

Davina McCall's Pill Revolution

(Photograph: Tom Barnes/Channel 4)

Davina McCall’s Pill Revolution aired on June 8th on Channel 4 to awe-struck audiences, with viewers claiming via social media that this was the first time they were learning about the full variety of options and consequences of contraception in the UK.

The hour-long documentary features McCall speaking to medical experts, researchers, politicians, and regular people about their knowledge and experiences with different methods of contraception.

When the pill was first introduced, it was hailed as the key to the 1960s sexual revolution. As one of the most significant medical contributions of the 20th century, it aided the social movement which saw liberalised attitudes towards sex, allowing women to gain more control over their sexuality without the risk of pregnancy, therefore granting them freedom from traditional gender roles.

But the 1960s was… 60 years ago. So why have attitudes changed since then?

The problems with the pill

While access to effective contraception is vital, many women struggle for decades with unwanted side effects, as young women are put on the pill and left to get on with it. With a lack of research, support and access, it is no wonder that so many people are completely frustrated with the limited options available.

Davina’s Pill Revolution begins with the host taking part in a fictional game show, Contraception Roulette, “where women take a gamble with their mental and physical health every time they choose a method of contraception.”

A wheel of side effects spins, ranging from bothersome to completely debilitating, including headaches, weight gain, nausea and hair loss, to blood clots, depression and anxiety.

While there are benefits to taking the pill, such as preventing unwanted pregnancy, lighter periods, reduced menstrual cramps and treatment for acne, there is an influx of women reporting increasingly negative side effects.

The show shares a Santana Survey from February 2023, with over 4,000 respondents, which found that 77% of users experienced side effects on the pill, and 33% stopped using it because of the effects they experienced. 36% of respondents said they suffered from low mood, anxiety or depression while on the pill, while 57% worried about the impact it had on their mental health.

The documentary also cites a Denmark study, which found that pill users aged 15 -19 were 80% more likely than non-users to be prescribed antidepressants - yet guidance in the UK states that there is no clear or causal evidence of a consistent link.

My experience with the pill

As someone who’s been on the pill since I was 16 years old (so for around 13 years of my life), I have experienced my fair share of side effects and frustrations.

I first went on the pill because of my heavy periods and with the knowledge that I wanted to start having sex safely. A 5-10 minute consultation with my GP left me with a supply of the combined pill Microgynon, the starter pill that many girls are put on. All medications have side effects, but as I unfurled the folded paper within the packet, I had never seen a booklet with so many pages of things that could potentially go wrong.

But we trust doctors, so why would I, especially as a teenager, question it?

After a few years, I decided that Microgynon wasn’t meeting all of my needs, as I was still having cripplingly heavy periods. I was then prescribed Desogestrel instead, the progestogen-only pill with no breaks, which I have been on for the last seven years and which has stopped my periods completely (which suits me fine!). Yet I have put on a significant amount of weight since being on it, I have depression and anxiety, and I get headaches almost daily.

Can I say for sure that those things are side effects of the pill? Not with 100% certainty, because so little research has been done on the topic to back up how women are feeling with evidence. But we know our bodies better than most, and I’m sure that having a bunch of hormones pumped through me has definitely had an effect on my mental and physical health.

But with the alternatives - not being able to leave the house because of periods, or an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy - what other choice do I have?

Choices of contraception

The main types of contraceptive in the UK are:

  • Pill

  • Implant

  • Injection

  • Coil

  • Patch

  • Vaginal ring

A condom, contraception pill, coil and various contraceptive devices.

The Santana study found that over 80% of respondents had changed their contraceptive type, with over half switching up to three times to try and find one that worked for them.

Davina shares that she was also prescribed Microgynon at age 15, but the Mirena coil has been a game-changer for her, which she now uses to supplement her HRT therapy. One of the most eye-opening points in the documentary is when the presenter gets her coil changed on camera, in an effort to show women the process and level of pain that the procedure entails. She states that she is uncomfortable, has cramping , and at one point it feels like a scrape which is sore, but “10 minutes of discomfort is worth five years of no periods and not having to worry about taking something every day”.

The documentary also explores natural methods of fertility awareness, such as the Natural Cycles Birth Control app. Endorsed by influencers such as Olivia Attwood, Natural Cycles uses the temperature data from a daily thermometer test logged in the app to predict a person’s fertile and non-fertile days. With people striving for natural alternatives, this has a certain appeal, but it is not 100% accurate or conclusive as if you are sick, hungover, or don’t take your temperature as soon as you wake up, it is not as effective.

Other methods such as the coil and the implant have been criticised for being painful and invasive, as well as being unpredictable for effects on periods, whereas the hormonal patch is only available in a beige colour, making it completely non-inclusive for people of colour to use.

As these other methods of contraception are often not discussed at initial contraceptive consultations, many women do not know what their options actually are. This has led to people conducting their own research online and getting advice on social media, which can be misleading.

Where can women access fact-based information?

The Lowdown, founded by Alice Pelton, is the first review and advice platform focusing on contraception. Created due to frustration at the lack of research available, the aim is to validate people’s experiences and help them to find the right method of contraception for their needs.

The documentary ends with Davina sitting down with the Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield, to discuss the Women’s Health Hubs announced as part of the Women’s Health Strategy released last year. Caulfield states that £25m worth of funding has been put into this strategy by the government, with the aim to create a one-stop-shop where women can gain access to contraception, family planning, and support all under one roof. But these hubs are in the first year of a ten year plan, so while women are in desperate need of help now, there is still a decade to go.

I think this documentary is a must-watch for anyone who is either currently taking, or is thinking of taking, contraception. As all of the responsibility is still on women to take contraceptive methods (we all heard about the study of men’s contraceptive pills that got cancelled because of the side effects, right?), it is imperative that we can separate fact and fiction when it comes to what we are putting into our bodies.

The solution might not be available yet, but the more we raise high-profile awareness to the issue of women’s sexual health, hopefully we can push policymakers to actually invest in the future of contraception that doesn’t involve being jabbed, having copper inserted into the womb, taking daily drugs, or anything else that impacts on our body in such a big way. Maybe, just maybe, if the responsibility for contraception was also shared with men, there would be more investment into alternative methods, or into how to reduce side effects, rather than chucking pills at women and telling them to get on with it.


bottom of page