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Why Are We Still Contraception-Shaming Women?
The Debrief: 'Only slags carry condoms.' Sound familiar?
Developed in partnership with and sponsored by HRA, manufacturer of ellaOne. The healthcare professionals included in the discussion do not endorse any specific brands.
'Why are you buying condoms, that’s your boyfriend’s job?', 'my mum freaked out and stole all my pills', 'lesbians don’t need to worry about STIs', 'I told a boy I was already on the pill and he said I must have slept around a lot,' 'my friend won’t come with me to buy the morning after pill because she thinks it’s wrong,' 'only slags carry condoms.'
If you are a sexually active woman who cares about her health, then chances are you think about contraception – it’s the smart thing to do, right? And for most 20-somethings, the alternative – pregnancy and/or STIs doesn’t bear thinking about. So why is there still a lingering, regressive attitude in the UK that caring about contraception is a sign of promiscuity in a woman and that ‘good girls’ don’t carry condoms, need STI checks or take the morning after pill?
As women, we are incredibly lucky in that the UK is one of the most liberal nations in the world when it comes to contraception. We can get the pill on the NHS, abortion is legal, condoms are given out in student halls, sex-ed is taught in schools (with a few glaring omissions e.g. the lack of contraceptive advice on offer to lesbian and bisexual women).
In the last 100 years women have gained the right to control their own bodies (it used to be legal for a man to repeatedly impregnate his wife without her consent), the right to have sex with whomever we want (sexually active women were frequently confined to asylums) and the right to control our sexual health. This is all extraordinary progress and we shouldn’t underestimate its importance. Yet contraception-shaming is alive and well in 21st century Britain, and it’s still a serious problem.
For starters, modern-day contraception-shaming seems to begin within our own communities – with parents freaking out when they discover that their (20-something) daughters are taking a responsible attitude to sex. ‘My parents are both very liberal’ explains Rebecca* ‘But one day mum found a condom wrapper on the floor of my room and she was furious, saying that I should be more discreet and that it was disgusting, that I didn’t have a boyfriend so why was I using condoms, etc etc. It wasn’t even my wrapper, it turned out later my little brother had been using my room when I was at uni. But she never told him he should be “more discreet” or apologised to me.’
Rebecca’s mother is one of many women who freak out when they realize their daughters are sexually active but are happy for their sons to use protection. Cosette’s* mother took it one step further and actually hid her daughter’s contraceptive pills while Stephanie’s* mother threw the Morning-After pill packet she found at her daughter: ‘Apparently she’d been going through my purse and was so enraged by my use of emergency contraception that she decided to lob them at me while yelling about how embarrassed she was and how I’d let her down.’ Whether Stephanie’s mother would have preferred her daughter to leave it to chance remains to be seen.
In theory contraception is a two-way street but the reality is that women are often expected to take responsibility for keeping sex, baby and STI free; while simultaneously being given extreme side-eye by our sexual partners. Lisa’s* story is fairly typical: ‘I was hooking up with a guy and reached over to grab a condom, turned back around and he’s like “why do you have so many condoms?” He then goes on to say that I was “keen” and clearly slept around a lot. We were both naked! We were about to have sex!’ Needless to say that charmer didn’t get laid.
This is a story that crops up again and again. Multiple women I spoke to described raised eyebrows when they took their contraceptive pills in public (“the same way I’d take a paracetamol”) and one woman was told off by her boyfriend for “advertising” that they were having sex.
Women are constantly pressured to have unprotected sex. We are shamed by our parents who don’t want to accept that their little girl is all grown up. We are shamed by our sexual partners who are uncomfortable talking about sexual health or take it as a sign of promiscuity, rather than common sense. We are shamed by our friends when they refuse to support us during pregnancy scares or wince when we discuss contraception.
This is despite the fact that a woman on the pill is just as likely to be a virgin as a sexual athlete, carrying condoms means that a woman is less likely to have an STI and contraception is not a magic key that somehow makes it easier for teenagers to have sex (although it does make it easier for them to avoid unwanted pregnancies). All too often, the morning-after pill is seen as a sign you’ve made a stupid mistake – when it should be a sign a woman’s taking responsibility for her body and her future. Shaming a woman will not make her stop having sex it will, however, increase the pressure on her to have unprotected sex.
The FPA surveyed 2000 16-24 year olds, and 52 per cent thought asking for emergency contraception was ‘embarrassing’. Getting emergency contraception from your pharmacist is nothing to be ashamed of - it’s so much more responsible than being too embarrassed to deal with the consequences of unprotected sex. Maybe all pharmacists and sexual health professionals should reward us with encouragement that we have done the right thing. I’m not saying we should get a sticker, like the ones we used to get for being good at the dentist, but there should be an acknowledgement that we have been brave enough to ask for the morning after pill or ask for condoms.
We need to spread the message that there’s nothing embarrassing about pulling your head out of the sand, and making a positive decision for your body and your future. We all make mistakes, because we’re human beings - but it’s incredibly empowering to own them, and do something positive about something that feels negative.
A lot of contraception-shaming stems from antiquated ideas that contraception will ‘encourage’ women to be promiscuous, instead of empowering us to care for our own sexual health. But there is another factor at work here: it’s about control. Parents who get upset when they find contraceptive pills in our handbags or condom wrappers in our rooms aren’t thinking about our health or wellbeing. They are realizing that they no longer have control of our bodies. Likewise a man or woman who thinks contraception is a sign of promiscuity is focusing on the fact that the woman they are with is in control of her own body and makes her own, independent choices.
*names have been changed.
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