Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Emergency contraception and the shaming of women

Ella One, a type of ‘morning after pill’ has been licensed for under-16s to use in the UK – a positive move in my book that gives girls access to emergency contraception should they need it. 

Of course, the move has not been without its critics – criticism that, as ever with these issues, refuses to acknowledge the reality of girls’ lives and instead chooses to focus on shaming young women for their sexuality and their reproductive rights. 

I would hate to be a teenage girl today. We live in a society that fetishizes youth to often frightening extremes (the existence of ‘barely legal’ p0rn categories tells us all we need to know) whilst at the same time shaming women who choose to engage in consensual sexual activity (he’s a stud, she’s slut – some things haven’t moved on). At the same time, teenage girls are under huge pressure to perform sexual availability, and coercion and sexual violence in teen relationships has reached a shocking high. We know there is a huge problem with young women being sexualised and the pressures put on them to perform a male-defined version of ‘sexy’ at all times. Yet in our reluctance to provide young people with proper sex education, we deny young women a voice and criticise efforts to give teenagers access to information about their sexuality and sexual health. 

It’s remarkably hypocritical. We despair about sexualisation. The Mail prints mock-outraged articles about sexualisation (illustrated with plenty of lascivious images of teen girls for good measure). And yet when there’s a chance to equip young people with the information and resources they need to negotiate their sexuality and reproductive health, we condemn it. 

No one is arguing that teenage girls should be having sex. But we know that some teenagers are going to have sex whatever adults say. And knowing this as a fact, isn’t it better that we ensure they have access to contraception, including emergency contraception, should they need it? Shouldn’t we do everything we can to ensure that if teenagers do choose to have sex, the sex they have is safe? Isn’t providing teenagers with clear, informative education about their sexual health options and giving them a voice to talk about their sexuality our best hope at raising a generation of young people who are mature, informed, and respectful around sex? 

When I was at school my sex and relationships education was…interesting. But hey, at least I had it – I realise now what a privilege that was. Around the time I was enduring SRE (15 years ago fact fans!) there was a debate going on in the news about underage access to contraception. It was either the pill or the morning after pill – I can’t remember exactly (the only thing I really remember about SRE was our lesson on STDs because it was given with an illustrated book of Mr and Mrs Hedgehog who had caught everything from syphilis to genital warts. NO I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY EITHER.) Anyway, so there we were talking about access to contraception and my SRE teacher said that the pill and the morning after pill:

make it too easy.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement which is why I remember it today, along with my hedgehog friends. 

Firstly, it should be easy to access contraception. And that should be the case today, but all too often it isn’t. Chemists can still refuse to provide the morning after pill on ‘moral’ grounds (because apparently their religion trumps my reproductive rights!). It can be difficult to get to your surgery, pharmacy or walk-in centre (especially as the latter have been cut so desperately) on weekends or if you live in rural areas – as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article today explains.  And then of course, there’s the interview – a procedure which really should focus on health and whether there’s been any coercion, but all too often asks embarrassing and personal questions that can leave a woman feeling awkward and ashamed. 


And women should be supported to have full access to our reproductive rights, which is why we need to abolish the ‘moral objection’ rule. You’re a chemist. Do your job. 

Another thing wrong with the ‘it makes it too easy’ statement is how it sits a little too close to the idea that women are the gatekeepers of sex. 

What I find particularly galling about this is how it refuses to allow for the fact that women might, you know, want to have sex, and that wanting to – in a mutually consensual and respectful relationship – (and that can be long or short term – it’s the mutual, consensual, respectful bit that counts) is okay. We don’t talk about this. Instead, we persist in talking about sex as something that men do, and that is done to women. 

This rhetoric has damaging repercussions on all women – particularly in regards to male violence and coercion. As mentioned before, sexual violence in teen relationships is frighteningly high. If we continue to talk about sex as something that is done to women, and don’t acknowledge that women have a right to their bodily autonomy and their right to say no to the sex they don’t want, and yes to the sexual contact they do want, then this is only going to get worse. It means girls grow up with 'silent bodies'. Further, if we continue to shame young women, then teenage girls who are experiencing violence or coercion are not given the space to speak out and seek support. Our messed up attitude to young people and sexuality, sex education and sexual health, is seriously letting down our young women. This has got to change. 

When my SRE teacher told us that giving young people access to contraception made having sex “too easy”, she was talking about teen boys trying to persuade teen girls into having sex. She argued that if girls had access to the pill or the MAP, then that was another weapon in the boy’s ‘armoury’, one less defence a girl had. 

What this conversation didn’t do was talk about how no one has any right whatsoever to verbally coerce another person into having sex. What it didn’t do was tell the young men and women in our class that if a man puts pressure on a woman to have sex she doesn’t want to have, then he is unequivocally in the wrong. Instead, we were told that not being on the pill gave girls a ‘good reason’ to refuse sex, and being on the pill made it ‘too easy’ to ‘give in’. What we surely should have been told is that girls shouldn't need to come up with excuses if they don't want to have sex. We should be teaching young men and women that 'NO' is enough. That 'NO' should be respected. That coercion is never okay, is in fact a crime. 

It was all very ‘boys will be boys and girls need to gate keep’ – that it was up to women to put up barriers to sex. Men didn’t have to take the same kind of responsibility. 

What this conversation also didn’t do was talk about how a woman might want to have sex as much as her partner, and therefore has a right to information about her reproductive health and access to contraception (obviously the best advice is to use a condom and I am not advocating choosing the morning after pill over a condom. But women should have access to and information about all our contraceptive options. I’m also, again obviously, not suggesting young people have sex when they are underage. However, once again, everyone should have access to contraception should they need it, along with advice and support about sex and sexuality.).

Finally, anything that makes it easier for a girl or woman who has been raped to access emergency contraception and support is vital. All the hand-wringing about access to the morning after pill, and the moral posturing from (mostly) men who have never needed to access it, almost always ignores the needs of women and girls who have been attacked and who need medical and emotional care as quickly as possible. 

Giving teenage girls access to emergency contraception isn’t going to make them have sex. But denying them access to it isn’t going to stop them having sex either. Teenagers are always going to experiment with their sexuality. We need to make sure that when they choose to, it is both of their choices and that they respect one another’s choices. And we need to make sure that they have access to the information and healthcare they need to be safe. Having to take the morning after pill is never ideal. But it is better if it is available to everyone who may one day need it, and that everyone who needs it can access it free from judgement or shaming. 

Are you a young person? Brook is a great resource for sexual health information. 

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