WOMBS ETC

Viagra will be available for a fiver. So why are women still fighting for affordable contraception?

The Viagra news is a significant development for men – but what does it tell us about our slow and ignorant approach to women’s health, asks Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

If you want to know the first thought that popped into my head when I read that Viagra will be made available over the counter in spring 2018 it was actually someone else’s – a quote by Gloria Steinem from her cult 1978 essay “If Men Could Menstruate.”

“What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” she asked. It’s a question we’re still asking today. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Steinem’s words have taken on new urgency at a time when women are using online calculators to tot up how much they’ve spent on the tampon tax since their first period began. Truth be told, they were ringing in my ears this morning when I read the news that Viagra will soon be made available for sale at local chemists for as little as a fiver – approximately the cost of a pint.

Why am I quoting a second-wave feminist in reference to a little blue erectile dysfunction pill? And what does it have to do with our periods – and even the recent debate about the morning-after pill? The simple answer: equality. I can’t help but feel that despite the two waves of feminism that have followed Steinem’s essay, we are still paying the price for our womanhood while men’s needs are so easily (and affordably) accommodated without any moral pushback.

The Viagra news is a significant development for men’s health – but it also says a lot about whose rights we still unwaveringly protect and whose we continue to obstruct

The Viagra news is a significant development for men’s health – but it also says a lot about whose rights we still unwaveringly protect and whose we continue to obstruct. As of next spring, Britain will become the first country where Viagra can be bought over the counter at a considerable discount. Announcing its decision this week, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said that it hoped the move would prevent men buying the pill from unregulated websites. According to The Guardian, £17m worth of unlicensed and counterfeit Viagra was seized in 2016. “It can be a debilitating condition,” Mick Foy, MHRA’s group manager, explained, “so it’s important that men feel they have fast access to quality and legitimate care.”

Fast access to quality, legitimate care – at an affordable price – is an admirable development two decades after Viagra was first launched; no one can dispute that. I’m just wondering why the same principles seem inapplicable to the thousands of women who were promised cheaper, over-the-counter morning-after pills – and are still waiting for this promise to be comprehensively delivered.

Only last week MPs accused Boots of being “unable or unwilling” to provide cheaper emergency contraception despite vowing to roll it out across the UK earlier this year. The proof is in the stats: as it stands (and as ITV News reported) just 69 of the pharmaceutical chains 2,500 shops now offer a cheaper brand that undercuts EHC (Levonorgestrel). Which means that 97 per cent of their shops are still overcharging women four months after reasoning that they didn’t want to “incentivise” the pill’s use. It’s a slap in the face for every woman who’s felt infantilised over the course of this Boots debate – because it’s not just about their actions, it’s also about the language they choose to justify restrictions on our bodily autonomy. Another thing I couldn’t help but notice this morning: nobody was debating the ethics of cheaper viagra in terms of incentivising its use.

This isn’t about the superiority of one gender’s needs over the other, it’s about equality. If Joe Bloggs can purchase a pill for his erectile dysfunction with change for a tenner, I think it’s only fair that I can walk into the same chemist and affordably take control of my own reproductive health, too; judgement free and without the kind of societal micro-managing that equates morning-after pills to moreish smarties that require tight regulation.

My hopes for 2018 aren’t as complicated as others would have me believe. I don’t see any reason why women shouldn’t be given safe, easy and affordable access to the treatment and medication they need. Or why period poverty can’t be made a thing of the past. Forty years after Gloria Steinem tapped on her typewriter, her words still ring true. The characteristics of the powerful are still thought to be better than the powerless – “and logic has nothing to do with it.”

A recent survey by Plan International UK revealed that one in 10 girls are unable to afford sanitary items in the UK. As I type, girls are using socks as sanitary towels – in a country where the economy is the fifth-largest in the world. What does this say about our indifference – or wilful ignorance – towards women’s bodies? Affordable contraception and basic hygiene products can exist alongside affordable blue pills, if the understanding and the will to achieve it is there

@Madame_George

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