(sex)uality : the morning after pill
I worked in a pharmacy for about 4 years while I was at university. I loved my job as a dispensary tech, despite the often gross conversations I would be forced into with customers.
Some favourites include the time a guy tried to make me touch the wart that was blooming under his armpit, and the time a woman came in and proclaimed that her husband had an ‘itchy bum’.
But one customer interaction that I soon bookmarked for cringe-factor was the selling of the morning after pill. Apparently, nothing says ‘awkward’ like ‘emergency contraception’.
Now, I have no judgement when it comes to the morning after pill – and in fact the point of this article is to illustrate the fact that judgement is pointless and hypocritical when it comes to emergency contraception.
But when a subject or situation is treated as supremely uncomfortable for everyone involved, you can bet you’ll start feeling pretty awkward once you’re in it.
For any of you who haven’t had to get the morning after pill, let me paint you a quick picture. The pill is kept behind the counter, so the only way you can get it is by asking at the dispensary counter of a pharmacy. You will then either be led to a consulting room, or to a different side of the counter from other customers and asked to fill out a questionnaire. The questionnaire involves questions about your last period, how many times you’ve had unprotected sex in a designated period of time, what the nature of protection was that you used etc. It feels pretty invasive, but it’s all fairly necessary information to determine whether or not you actually need the pill.
The pharmacist will then come over and talk to you about the questionnaire, and finally, if all is well, give you the pill. You’re then faced with the slow walk back to the front of the store, with people wandering why you were quarantined, the little box containing the pill a beacon alerting people to your potential predicament. It’s not exactly subtle.
As a dispensary tech, I’d often be the first person to talk to the customer seeking the morning after pill. They would shuffle into the store looking uneasy, come over to the dispensary, and whisper the name of the drug in hushed tones, nine times out of ten. One woman took me aside to tell me in no uncertain terms that she had been having sex with her husband and that they had used protection, but the condom broke, and that they already had kids.
Despite how uncomfortable this made me (seriously, I needed no such details), I could hardly blame her, considering how uncomfortable she clearly felt. And it certainly wasn’t the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy that was making her feel uncomfortable – it was the perceived societal judgement she was facing.
She wanted me to know that she was having sex with someone she knew, that it was one guy, that she did use protection, that she wasn’t a shameless hussy getting a pre-emptive abortion.
And the sad thing is, that judgement exists. Maybe not from me, or even the pharmacist that gave her the pill. But there is a reason why the morning after pill is treated like an illicit drug despite being available easily over the counter – much like when the contraceptive pill first became available to women, the morning after pill gives us agency over our bodies and our sexuality in a way that makes people uncomfortable.
It says something about women and sex that still causes some awkwardness – that sex can be for pleasure only, with multiple different people, outside of wedlock; that women can choose to have sex and then choose not to get pregnant.
Ironically, unwanted pregnancy is treated with the same amount of stigma and judgement as the morning after pill in a lot of ways, as a sort of symbol of a fallen woman. There seems to be no way to win.
There is an element of slut-shaming to the way some of the girls I worked with at the pharmacy would treat women who came in for the morning after pill. Little barbed comments about how they ‘clearly got some’ the night before; raised eyebrows, a sense of disapproval. Disapproval of what, I wanted to ask – her responsibility in coming in to avoid an unwanted pregnancy? Her right to manage her body and sexuality however she wanted? Her freedom to use a government approved, safe emergency contraceptive?
And don’t get me wrong, I do acknowledge the fact that the morning after pill can be abused by some women, who rather than turning to it in an emergency, rely on it in the place of condoms or the pill the night before. But at the end of the day, that’s their choice for their bodies.
To me, rather than being stigmatised, the morning after pill should be embraced among all other forms of contraception; women should be educated about it’s uses and availability, as well as the side effects and pitfalls of its use (though there actually aren’t any known long-term effects).
Although it isn’t a bandaid solution, and ideally other forms of contraception should be relied on first, the morning after pill is a useful medical option available to women, and muddying its reputation with archaic social judgment can only be harmful.