Sex without the Pill? There's an app for that!

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Marco Werman: Clearly, family planning can be fairly complicated. But if you’re lucky enough to have access to a smartphone, there’s an app for that. Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan has looked at some of the newest fertility technology, including a contraceptive system developed in Switzerland called Daysy. It relies on a thermometer linked to a mobile app.


Olga Khazan: It looks like sort of a teardrop and you put it under your tongue and it lights up. If it’s red or yellow, you have to use protection. But if it lights up green, then you can have sex without a condom. There are other types of thermometers out there other than the Daysy. There’s another one that was released in Sweden recently that works similarly. A lot of these are just a pair of a thermometer-type tool with an app.


Werman: But, as you’ve written, measuring, recording, and analyzing one cycle in order to stay baby-free is historically error-prone, right?


Khazan: The American College of Gynecologists who I talked to, they said that it’s not as effective as most other forms of birth control and that about one in four women will become pregnant. So, I think what some of these app makers and some of these new device manufacturers are saying is that they can actually achieve greater rates of accuracy just because they add a layer of technology and make it more personalized.


Werman: And the women who are using Daysy that you’ve spoken with, what do they like about it, and what don’t they like?


Khazan: The birth control pill is still the most common method of birth control for women, and a lot of them who started on the pill had really awful side effects, and they don’t like condoms for whatever reason. So, they do like that it allows you to have that same freedom and spontaneity as not using condoms, but it also doesn’t have any side effects because you’re not taking any kind of medicine on a regular basis. At the same time, you have to be really diligent and you have to track your readings; you can’t fudge it on days when you’re in a yellow zone. I think some of them can be thrown off if you drink a lot the night before, so maybe even for college students it might not be ideal. As your story mentioned, a lot of the makers of these devices don’t recommend these for people who can’t control when they have sex and are in a situation or a relationship where the man makes those decisions.


Werman: And who’s using these sorts of devices?


Khazan: Several of the technologies that I looked at are more popular in Europe. So, in Germany and Switzerland, Daysy is selling about 1,800 units a month compared to about 200 in the US. Natural Cycles, which is another thermometer and app, that one was created in Sweden and became popular in Europe before migrating over to the US. Then another fertility app called Clue, which is now extremely popular among women who just want to do all sorts of tracking, including menstrual tracking, that’s been #1 in health and fitness in the app store for 28 different countries, but that one was actually also invented in Germany.


Werman: For women who don’t have the means to have a smartphone, there’s CycleBeads. Tell us about that.


Khazan: CycleBeads does have an app but they also have this sort of necklace-like tool and it basically consists of all the beads with each bead representing a day of your menstrual cycle. What you do is on the first day of your period, you put a little rubber ring around a bead and it sort of allows you to track--you move the ring along as your cycle progresses. When you get to a certain color bead, I think they’re brown in certain versions of this, you can have unprotected sex on those days without really risking getting pregnant. But when you are on the lighter colored days, you can’t. This is something that CycleBeads is testing around the world.


Werman: I’ve read that CycleBeads was undergoing testing in Kenya last year, a country where there is high internet and mobile use. Does it seem practical there?


Khazan: Yeah. It’s interesting because you do have in a lot of parts of Africa now a high degree of mobile phone penetration and internet usage, so now it’s almost like they’re flipping and they’re becoming the ones who are using the app version of the device. I think that the necklace version would still be helpful for people who can’t afford phones in other areas, but it is a good sign that they’re able to progress to the more technologically advanced version of this.


Werman: How did you get interested in this whole subject?


Khazan: I was actually doing a lot of research on new fangled methods of birth control for a magazine article that I wrote about really innovative stuff that is only now being researched, like male versions of birth control and stuff that’s like implants in your body that you can control with a remote. That just got me thinking about this old method of birth control that has been around for literally centuries, and I just started hearing about how these apps and how people are using them. I just thought it was interesting that people are moving forward by moving backward.


Werman: Olga Khazan with The Atlantic magazine. Thank you.


Khazan: Thanks so much for having me.