The Changemakers in Family Planning

PI: Krystale E. Littlejohn of Sociology

Krystale Littlejohn stands in the snow

Roughly 400 million women around the world rely on birth control in order to choose if and when they want to start families. There are a range of methods to choose from: the pill, a birth control shot, the ring, implants, and patches, all of which use hormones to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Yet, dissatisfaction with hormonal birth control methods among women is common. How do women make choices when they simultaneously seek a birth control method and are not comfortable with their options? That’s what Krystale E. Littlejohn aims to answer.

Through a  two-year, $67,000 grant from the Society of Family Planning, Littlejohn developed a framework for better understanding people’s birth control decision-making. This new line of work puts women’s dissatisfaction front and center. Littlejohn’s research in Demography used a nationally representative dataset and found that 37% of women ages 23-44 who had used hormonal contraception had stopped because of dissatisfaction, with the most common reason being hormonal side effects. 

“A deep frustration with birth control among people who can get pregnant led me to this project,” Littlejohn said. “I realized that our conceptual models of contraceptive use and discontinuation don’t account for the tradeoffs that people have to make every day to accomplish their goals amid imperfect contraceptive options.” 

Through the development of her research using this grant, Littlejohn plans to apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a longitudinal study on birth control decision-making between couples. Her forthcoming book, Just Get on the Pill: The Uneven Burden of Reproductive Politics, explores women’s feelings about preventing pregnancy and the limitations of their contraceptive options. Through women’s discussions of challenges with their partners, Littlejohn was inspired to explore these experiences between couples. 

Her book will  tell the stories of more than 100 young women aiming to prevent pregnancy using hormonal methods. She also argues for shifting the gendered burden of birth control use, so men and women share it more equally. For instance, condoms are a very effective method for preventing pregnancy when used consistently and correctly. Littlejohn goes on to challenge the common notion that methods designed for women’s bodies are more effective than methods understood as “men’s,” as they can be just as effective in preventing pregnancy without the accompanied side effects. 

“The tradeoffs for women often involve choosing between using a birth control method that may cause problems for them, like self-esteem issues, emotional volatility, or conflicts with partners, and stopping or switching methods to get relief. Many choose to continue their method in order to avoid pregnancy, but they have to manage the challenges associated with use, which isn’t easy,” Littlejohn said.