The Strange Sexism of Period Apps
From heteronormative language and pink flowers to major privacy concerns, these apps are letting us down.
Commercialized menstruation always looks the same. Image: Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock
A few months ago, I got an invite from my friend Holly to start using Eve, a fertility tracking app for "savvy" gals who "just want to track their cycle and have fun," as the app says. An estimated 200 million people have downloaded period trackers worldwide.
Eve says things like "Men are cute" and "Get it, girl xo," and recommends sex positions that seem more likely to end in a hospital visit than an orgasm. The app also taught me cool tricks like how to test the stage of my cervical mucus by holding it between my finger and thumb. Using Eve was a bit like hanging out with my American second cousin who came for a sleepover when were 13 and showed me how to take screenshots of dicks on Chatroulette, then hide them in an album on the family computer called "cool fish."
The more I used these apps, the weirder I felt about the idea that an algorithm developed by a bunch of tech bros from Silicon Valley understood my body better than I did. (PayPal entrepreneur Max Levchin founded Eve and Glow—a version for women trying to conceive.) Here are some of the issues I have with Eve, Glow, and the rise of cycle-tracking apps.
They Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes
Men have been telling women that our bodies are unruly for thousands of years. While the ancient Egyptians attributed hysteria (a term used in official medical dictionaries until the 80s) to the womb wandering about the body, the Elizabethans and Victorians blamed it on leaky female fluids. Now apps like Glow and Eve offer to explain "What's Up Down There" so we can "MASTER" our private parts and "DEMYSTIFY" Aunty Flo.
This becomes particularly weird with the "partner" feature that allows any second person, although usually assumed to be your DH (short for Dear Husband on the Glow chatrooms) to "monitor" the body of his DW. A senior representative from Glow told me that "notifications are not based on gender stereotypes but rather on the role that each user has on the journey ahead." But the different tips sent to the partners are based on some pretty outdated roles.
In preparation for the "Baby Dance" (the term for sex in Glow forums), women who are ovulating are advised to make themselves more sexually attractive by putting on sexy underwear. Levchin has described how men are told to buy flowers on the way home, presumably from their tiring day as the family breadwinner. While having both partners invested in the fertility process can be helpful, the idea that an algorithm calculates and informs my partner when I want to have sex is not scientific, it's disempowering. DH also receives tips on how to cope with DW when she is emotional or stressed while menstruating that include holding her hand and rubbing her back.
The issue is that even before these apps, suggesting that women might be on their periods has always been a really handy way of delegitimizing female anger. Calm down, you're not actually angry about the gender pay gap or the systematic closure of domestic violence refuges under austerity—menstruation has just destroyed your capacity for rational thought. This attitude was perfectly summed up by a period-tracking app a few years ago called Fredrick (now removed from the app store), designed specifically for men. Its tagline was "Don't hate her. Navigate her," and it offered poetic wisdom like "Reds Reds Whine: like a bloody awful broken record."
Despite their heteronormative content, Glow and Eve do at least allow for the possibility that users could be bisexual or gay. In response to the daily question "did you get some?" the Eve designers now have a "banana free" option and your Glow partner can be a woman.
In contrast, apps like Period Calendar (by the same designers as Period Diary) only have the options "with condom" or "without condom," assuming in the latter case that you have had unprotected sex. No fertility apps on the market have adequately addressed the reality that non-binary or trans folks may also benefit from tracking their period. Their overwhelming association of menstruation with femininity is reflected in the predominant pink colour schemes and cutesy flower decorations.
They Can Do What They Want With Your Personal Data
You and your "DH" aren't the only ones monitoring "What's Up Down There." The data of people who are pregnant or trying to conceive is worth a huge amount of money; women planning a baby can be sold endless products and the global IVF market is expected to reach $27 billion by 2022. Period Calendar and a number of other apps already have targeted advertising, and Glow was originally created inside a tech incubator called HVF, the aim of which was to "create value by leveraging data."
Glow for Enterprise, founded in 2014, invites a woman's employers into her pregnancy planning—in exchange for contributing $50 per month toward IVF funds, they receive detailed aggregated reports on employees' personal health data, including whether they are trying to get pregnant. These do not include specific names or individual information, but they do include the data altogether.
As the Glow spokesperson I talked to pointed out, the app is compliant with the Health and Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) ban on sharing health information*, but that does not mean aggregated data cannot be shared. Meanwhile, a number of popular fertility tracker apps, including Period Calendar and Fertility Friend, are not HIPAA compliant, partly because they're not required to be, and partly because that level of privacy isn't conducive to advertising.
Policies change fast as companies owned by venture capitalists are pressed to prioritise profit over privacy. Promises that apps "won't sell your data" also don't include actions like transferring information between partners and trading assets. Glow has formed strategic corporate partnerships with Walgreens pharmacies and Shady Grove fertility clinics in the US. Levchin believes that access to more individuals' detailed data through apps could help health insurance companies provide better services.
Last year, a Consumer Reports investigation also singled out Glow for the ease with which anyone could hack individuals' data reflecting their sex life to miscarriages. While these have since been fixed, the fact that the company seemingly hadn't tested for this before is deeply worrying.
They Shift Responsibility for Your Well-Being from The State to the Individual
Why are we willingly sharing so much data with Glow or Eve on our fitness, diet, mood, sex life, weight, skin, and so on? We're repeatedly promised that by "harnessing the power of data science," we can flourish in all these areas. The ugly flipside is that if you don't, it's your own fault.
This lets the government off the hook when they should be held accountable. Precarious jobs will inevitably fuck up your sleeping patterns. Institutional racism and homophobia mean that people of colour or gay people are statistically more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Ready meals or takeout become the default dinner as working class parents are forced to work longer hours, while the cost of vegetables and gym memberships soar. Meanwhile, the government continues to shift resources away from women's healthcare, contraception, and family planning.
These things do affect your fertility, and your menstrual cycle. But they presumably don't apply to the women featured in Glow's promotional material: Taylor Swift lookalikes working out with their babies in cashmere slings while their male partners gaze on lovingly.
The "mood" quiz I answered every day for Eve included options from "flirty" to "FOMO," but I couldn't find the "pissed off about the systematic neglect of public services" button. Glow's feel-good pregnancy success stories don't change the fact that IVF is so expensive as to be inaccessible. In the US, it receives no government funding despite the high direct cost to patients, at around $23,000 per cycle. In the UK, where I'm based, there have also been recent dramatic cut-backs to NHS IVF provision. Only 12 percent of trusts offer the recommended three cycles of IVF, and five areas now have an outright ban on funding.
Thankfully, there are better alternatives. Most of my friends are now using Clue , which describes itself as having more of a "scientific" approach to self-tracking. It was developed by Ida Tin, a female entrepreneur based in Berlin and largely avoids shitty stereotypes with its stripped back interface (although this app still has made no visible effort to develop features that are more accessible for trans or non-binary users).
The team at Clue claim that they take pride in "being respectful with people's data", making sure that it "serves a meaningful purpose." But with their future in the hands of investors, Clue will have to start making money soon and it is unclear what constitutes a "meaningful purpose." Clue has already started include data from companies like Fitbit, and Clue's marketing manager told me the company maintains a commitment to users privacy but will be exploring "several monetization experiments."
As regulatory frameworks fail to keep up with the pace of technological innovation, it is down to the users to hold apps to high standards. We should be wary of any technologies framed as a magic solution to issues that ultimately require larger scale fixes, including public funding and policy change.
So for now, I want all apps off my uterus.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article it was not clear that Glow was HIPAA compliant. The company does not share individual data. The article has been corrected and we regret the error.