Are British women being punished for having a sex life?

The lies, the interrogation, the extortionate prices: how hard should it really be to get contraception?

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I always think it's funny that the biggest lies we tell are almost always about our sex lives. However much sex you have, you'll always multiply it casually, to remind everyone you're still cool. If you said you had sex loads on holiday, what you mean is: I had sex on holiday and once while the sun was up. But the oddest thing of all, I think, is how much we lie about our sex lives to the person who gives us the morning-after pill. 

If you want to get the morning-after pill in this country, you need to talk about your sex life to get it. You need to go into the little room in Boots – usually a room about as big as the cupboard under your mum's stairs – with a person you've never met, and you have to make your case. 

"I had unprotected sex last night." 

A slight nod. 

"I, uh, need the morning-after pill." 

And when did you last have sex? Was it with a partner? Did you use a condom? Are you on the pill? Why aren't you on the pill? I think you should go on the pill. Have you considered an IUD? Here's a pamphlet for an IUD. If you have an IUD, you won't forget to take it, like you would with the pill, which is probably why you're here. Am I getting warm? 

You leave, £30 poorer, clutching a white bag and feeling as if you've escaped a bare-bulbed interrogation room in East Berlin

This is when the lies usually start – your desire to be a "good" patient forces you to say all kinds of crap. You start referring to your boyfriend as your "husband", your one-night stand as your "partner". You say you used a condom, even though you didn't. You smile politely and listen about the NuvaRing. And then you leave, £30 poorer, clutching a white bag and feeling as if you've escaped a bare-bulbed interrogation room in East Berlin. Because, yes, let's not forget: you don't just need an interview to get the morning-after pill, you need to pay up, too. 

But this is all for our own good, right? Our health, our wellbeing? Well, no – not when you consider that the morning-after pill in England is one of the most expensive in Europe. According to the European Consortium for Emergency Contraception, it costs an average of £28 in the UK, while in France you can get it for under a tenner. In Scandinavia, the US and France, you can buy the drug off the shelf without a consultation. So why do we still have to operate under the arcane interview system if other women are getting along fine without it? 

Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, shares our concerns, and has spoken to The Times regarding the availability of the morning-after pill. “Condoms are on the shelf. Sex toys are on the shelf. All manner of medications are on the shelf. So why not emergency contraception?"

“Emergency contraception is a safe and effective way to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, but the current framework in Britain is insulting, expensive and does not meet women’s needs," says Furedi. No kidding. The longer you look at the system, the less sense it makes – as if getting the morning-after pill is made embarrassing, expensive and difficult so you'll do it less. As if you'll make fewer mistakes if the punishment will place a certain stigma on you and will make you a little poorer in the long run.

In essence, the British system of contraception operates on the same justification as the British prison system. You will not do the thing if you will get punished for the thing.

"As a society, we embrace sex for pleasure," says Furedi, "but expect women to march a walk of shame and pay through the nose."


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