Control WombAre iPhone apps the new fertility specialists?

Want to get pregnant? There's an app for that. Want to not get pregnant? There's an app for that, too (and no, it's not condoms). Want to know why you're so damn moody? There's—yep—an app for that. They could be considered the Our Bodies, Ourselves for the tech-savvy women of the 21st century: iPhone applications that inform women about the workings of their bodies without actually engaging with flesh and blood. Currently, there are more than 20 applications available to users either anxious to conceive or hoping to avoid being the next featured woman on TLC's I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. Period Tracker Lite (free) enthuses that “[it's] the SIMPLEST period-tracking app and now, it's CUTER than ever!” FemDays ($6.99) “stores all your womanly observations in one place.” iPeriod (currently on sale for $1.99) markets itself as perfect for “a busy woman.” And iMensies ($1.99) bills itself as a “stylish app” that allows women to “look at an entire year of your menses, moods, and symptoms with the touch of a finger.” The apps generally work like so: You enter the date of your last period and your estimated cycle length. A calendar appears with a series of markings and codes, depending on which app you're using, as well as places to note your flow, temperature, mood, and even “love connections.” (It's unclear if this last is a euphemism for sex or just for making eyes with someone at a bar.) Petals ($1.99), whose parent company, eNATAL, is an Internet-based prenatal care system used in many U.S. hospitals, organizes your information with fallen petals to indicate menstruation and a full bloom to let you know you're ovulating. iPeriod uses hearts and stars to designate where you are in your cycle, and yellow faces with smiles or frowns to guess how the hormonal shifts have you feeling. (The mood-awareness features of the apps, it's worth noting, don't allow for the user's personal descriptions—rather, you're prompted to pick from a list of options, including “angry,” “exhausted,” and “weepy.”) These applications are essentially all technologized versions of the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), one of the oldest forms of family planning. Instead of using pills, patches, or rings, with fam women count the days of their cycles with cycle beads (check your mother's—or grandmother's—closet) and/or charting on a calendar changes including cervical position, mucus, and basal body temperature. FAM offers numerous advantages: It's nonhormonal, can be used by individuals with religious concerns about contraception, and—perhaps most important—makes women aware of their fertility patterns. (That said, FAM has disadvantages, too—charting cycles requires significant time and effort, and it doesn't protect against STIs.) So are these friendly, smiley-faced, flower-bedecked technotools a women's-health revolution on par with the Pill, allowing us to manage fertility cheaply and easily? In theory, maybe. But there are several practical and theoretical drawbacks, starting with functionality. When I downloaded an app called Fertility Friend, for instance, it crashed my iPod Touch (the non-AT&T-user's iPhone) and refused to open for three days, leaving me guessing where exactly I was in my cycle. It then returned as Free Menstrual Calendar, which perhaps should indicate something about its usefulness as a fertility friend. Futhermore, for the applications to be as accurate as possible, a woman needs to know the length of her menstrual cycle and luteal phase (the second phase of the menstrual cycle, which occurs after ovulation). Several apps, including iPeriod and Period Tracker, assume a luteal phase of 14 days; though that's the average, for many women it can range from 10 to 16 days. Thus, if your luteal phase is shorter or longer than the app's average, the ovulation days it predicts won't be correct. The only way for a woman to truly know the length of her luteal phase is to understand things like basal body temperature and “egg-white” cervical mucus—assessments that, at least for now, are best taken with a thermometer and a clean finger, respectively. And indeed, apps that claim to offer “everything you need!” for charting and tracking your cycles are awfully quick to shrug off their technical shortcomings. Nurtur, which is happy to be a “fast and efficient” program that “won't get you bogged down with details,” nevertheless disclaims that its fertility predictions “should be used for educational purposes only.” None of which is likely to tamp down the enthusiasm of users like MillvilleMom, who gushes in her review of Free Menstrual Calendar, “I love this app. Got pregnant in two cycles with it.” It's as though the application itself was responsible for her pregnancy, and she's relinquished her own agency in the process. Nor are the inherent technical shortcomings likely to stem the tide of menstruation-predictor apps that have an entirely different audience: men. Yes, there's a whole new crop of apps that use the mood-predictor features of menstrual apps to clue men in on just how whiny and irrational their ladies will be at any given time. Though PMS Buddy is marketed to men and women, its tagline (“Saving relationships, one month at a time!”) is a clue as to its target demographic. Meanwhile, Menstrometer is targeted specifically to men as the “most significant invention since the invention of screw-top beer,” given that it lets men know when, as its creators write, “Aunt Flow [sic]” is coming. The description for Menstrometer on the iTunes site bills it as the “secret weapon to understanding and pre dicting the mood of your partner,” but issues a “safety warning” that under no circumstances should you “reveal the Menstrometer” to your partner. You know, because women on the rag are crazy and will cut you. Menstrometer user David indicates in his featured testimonial just how useful it can be for men to understand their relationship based on something as traditional (and misogynistic) as blaming women's menstruation: “For me, the Menstrometer started out as a funny little app, but I soon found myself consulting it frequently to find out whether I had actually done something wrong. It's a life saver [sic].” A review of PMS Buddy by another chap further reveals how these apps perpetuate the myth that menstruation makes all women moody and irrational: “It is a huge advantage being able to anticipate a womans [sic] emotional times at home and work. Works great and is easy too.… The longer I've had this the more I appreciate the heads up it gives me!” When it comes to these apps, we can't throw the digital baby out with the bathwater. Some of them do work for women who want to avoid pregnancy, think more consciously about their bodies, and have more informed conversations with their partners and doctors. But it's worth wondering if handy period and fertility trackers are just another example of women's bodies becoming more technologized at the expense of actual women having actual knowledge, control, and understanding of them. In turning the female reproductive system into little more than a collection of numbers, symbols, temperatures, and moods, these apps commodify natural processes and suggest (despite their legal disclaimers) that busy women don't need to bother with listening to their own bodies. It doesn't help that the companies who create the majority of these applications have nothing to do with women's health. Winkpass Creations, for instance, the company responsible for iPeriod, offers such apps as Knot Guide (step-by-step directions for creating 78 different knots), Dog Dodge (a game in which you steer a virtual pooch around fire hydrants and cats), and “Beer Run” (an app that guides you to the nearest suds shop). Given that Winkpass promotes itself as the creator of “innovative apps for tomorrow,” it's a wonder they haven't combined some of these apps. Of the hundreds of reviews of apps like iPeriod and Fertility Friend, very few of them mention the body; the majority of posts concentrate on the wonders of being able to predict the arrival of one's period without any comment on how the prediction occurs. They may be useful tools, but in order for these apps to offer the freedom and agency they promise, it's up to users to look at what's behind the petals, hearts, and smiley faces. 

This article was published in Old Issue #46 | Spring 2010
by Bree Kessler
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

i really want to know when

i really want to know when an iphone will be able to father my children. THAT is the app i want.

A few Thoughts...

So I have thought of these ideas to make an app to tracking periods myself. I think it would be great to enter some information based on my observations and have something calculate the time of my periods. Someone could argue that perhaps the technology would be coming between me and my body, for the reason that I am not relying on the external to tell me about me, about my own body. If I am depending on something else to tell me about my body, then I have given some power to this object, but what power is this? It must be of an epistemic nature, for it is only the knowledge of the temporal cycle that I want. I do not need an app to have or be in my cycle, I am constantly, implicitly, already doing this. The danger, or "danger" in this is that the device calculating my period could be taken away at any point, or could be wrong, or like the article describes, crash. Then where would I be? I would be just has I had been before I downloaded the app, guessing when my period will be, having it come by surprise, and so on (assuming I didn't just start using a calender or something).
Which is better, is it better to never quite know when your period will come, and just be conscious of yourself and how you feel in your body, or to have all the information you could possibly need in the form of a computer (assuming the computer could calculate perfectly).
For many years now, I have been living without using any calenders, or anything to calculate my period. I can pretty much guess within a few days that I will start soon, but I usually never guess the exact day. Occasionally I miss all the "signs" or don't have any of the associated feelings and it is a surprise, but this, of course, is not a fatalistic event, I am always happy to start bleeding, whether unexpected or not. Yet my sentiment here is not shared with the majority of women, my experience is that they dread their period as if it were not the awesome event it is. So if these same women use calculators to predict their periods, then they may be more than dismayed when the prediction is wrong. They will give the app the power to disgruntle them, and this is troublesome.

So I ask my fellow woman, are we ready to give this power to a machine? If most people (both men and women) view menstruation negatively already, then wouldn't such technology exacerbate the "awfulness" that comes with that unexpected period? From my conversation here with myself, I don't think we can expect technology to make our cycles more predictable until we are more amicable to them in general. That is, we must be using the machine to supplement our knowledge of our cycles, not dictate or replace.


Fabulous article Professor K ;)


Good article, though how you've portrayed FAM is a bit unfair. The problem is that you've confused it with the rhythm method (THAT is what the your grandmother will have used.)
The fertility awareness method does not use beads or calendars because it takes into account that not every woman has a 28 day cycle where they ovulate on day 14. It uses charting where you enter your basal body temperature and what type of cervical fluid you have. Through these things alone you can tell exactly when you ovulate, exactly when you're fertile and when is the best time to abstain from or go for sex depending on if you want contraception or conception.

And is it better than the pill? Hell yes it is. Firstly you are in complete control, you KNOW your body, you are not relying on enormous drug industries and wasting money on pills that can screw you up for years after you're done with them (it took my cycles 5 years to become regular after the pill.) Not only does it put reproductive knowledge back int he hands on women, but it's as effective if not more so than condoms and the pill depending on user failure rates.

As for the time it takes? Let's see, 30 seconds to take my temperature every morning and 5 seconds to draw it onto a chart. Compare that to the time it takes to go to a doctor, get a pill script and have that filled (Not to mention the cost) or to have an IUD fitted.
Obviously common sense comes into play. Condoms should always be used if you don't know what the disease-status of your partner is.

If it sounds like a fringe method or something you can't trust, well, then that just speaks to how invasive the idea is in our society that women are incapable of being in control of their own bodies.

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