We Need to Talk About Contraception

The lovely people at femusings.com have allowed us to publish one of their wonderful guest articles about how important the open dialogue about conraception is essential for societal progression.

"Hang them out to dry"

"Hang them out to dry"

We need to talk about contraception. And by ‘talk’ I mean open, frank dialogue at every level, and within every gender and age group. I mean ‘talk’ that ignores and dissolves the distaste, the ignorance, or the prejudice that open conversation about sex and sexual health is too frequently met with. I mean talk between friends and family; between partners whether long term or for-the-night; and between GPs and MPs and teachers.

We need to talk because we’re in a rut. Teenage pregnancy, the headlines scream, is reaching unprecedented levels. STIs diagnoses are up 49% since 2002. And as more women go on the pill, unfortunately so too do more women discard the male condom as a form of contraception (down 8% in the last decade). In case you’re wondering: you need both.

Yet: despite frequent, placatory governmental pledges to improve sexual health; still, there is no compulsory sexual education in schools; condoms and morning after pills are only freely available in specialist clinics and not over-the-counter or at GP surgeries; and I have learnt, alongside the rest of my gender, that when it comes to my sexual health, it is better to swallow, not spit, and then be a good girl and keep shtumn.

In a report published by the Department of Health in March of this year, Anne Soubry, MP, acknowledged that the UK is now in the bottom third of 43 countries in Europe and N. America for condom use amongst sexually active young people. To counter this she proposed encouraging ‘an honest and open culture’ and tackling the ‘stigma, discrimination and prejudice’ associated with sexual health matters.

Admirable sentiments. But what is actually being done?

In the newly drafted National Curriculum Michael Gove makes no mention of sexual education. As things stand, and as they shall continue to stand when this draft is passed, sex ed. (SRE) is completely non-compulsory outside of GCSE biology lessons. A student leaving school today could enter the adult world, armed with the definitions of ‘zygote’ and ‘embryo’, but not know how to put on a condom or identify various STIs.

At my single sex girls’ school I was taught according to a ‘safe sex is no sex’ mentality. My school nurse seemed more embarrassed than the group of young girls in front of her when she explained that ‘in actual fact’ most women never orgasm; mentioned the contraceptive pill in passing, and reminded us that marriage was the safest space inwhich to explore our sexuality. A couple of years on and this mentality seems stone-age.

Extreme though my experience may have been, this attitude is actually mandated by a culture of embarrassment that surrounds sexual education for school age students, and sexual health matters more widely. Male peers have admitted being asked to leave classes addressing menstruation, as if this experience is a secret, female-only concern. Female friends have complained of the simplistic ‘no-means- no’ dogma that imbues sexual relationship education, which at once insults the intelligence of men by proposing that they be addressed with an abruptness I associate with addresses to my dog, and which belittles the libidos of women by assuming that the majority of their sexual experience will consist of an endless succession of male- initiated propositions. I myself went into a GP surgery recently to inquire about contraception and, although I left with a prescription, it was the Internet that taught me how to take it. The only instruction my nurse gave me was, worrying enough, not to speak to my friends about my experiences, since “you might scare each other.”

Silence about sexual health generally is focalized in the silence that reigns on the subject of the Pill. Discussion of the Pill tends to vary between the extremes of adulation and condemnation with very little in between. Feminists, in particular, seem to regard the pill with near- religious zeal, citing female sexual emancipation as the key tenant of it’s worth. Social conservatives, on the other hand, enjoy magnifying the problems of the pill (side effects and casualties) as an easy way of addressing their deeper-seated concerns that its introduction sounds the death knell of the traditional family and conservative sexual and social values.

I am a Feminist and I too regard the pill as an essential advance for women, and strongly endorse its wide spread use (45% of women, as of 2011). However, it is essential that such a culture does not stifle open discussion about women’s real experiences on the pill. The pill can have side effects varying from headaches to blood clots or severe depression. But these negatives do not have to be normative. In fact, Katie - friend, neighbor and practicing GP – says that, in her experience of prescribing the pill, she would estimate that 85% of the women that she treats settle down eventually with a pill that suits them and which induces minimal uncomfortable side effects.

But to recognize the side effects as such and ensure that women are using the best contraception possible, is it not vital that people are talking to each other? Both peer to peer, partner to partner and patient to GP?

I’ve lost count of the times that the openness with which I talk about feminism, sex, and the inappropriately named area of ‘women’s issues’, has drawn redfaced friends, acquaintances and family members to me as though I were an oracle of information and arch- adjudicator of the complex topics of contraception and the politics and mechanics of sex. But this is a conversation that everybody should be having.

Ellen Adams works as Advocacy Coordinator for Sexpression:UK, a non profit organisation dedicated to providing comprehensive, peer- directed sex and relationship education in schools across the country. For her, everything comes back to education, which Ellen believes is the single most effective way to “empower young people to make decisions for themselves”. By providing information and, crucially, a space in which discussion about sex can happen without stigma or judgement, Ellen tells me that Sexpression fosters a ‘sexpositive’ attitude: encouraging people to enjoy sex, and giving them the discursive and explanatory tools necessary for them to navigate their experience of it.

It is a wonder to me that such a healthy, positive program of sexual education is not already compulsory for school age students up and down the country.

It seems to me that women are caught in a double bind. We are ‘free’ to enjoy the fruits of our sexual emancipation, so long as we do not discuss the methods by which that emancipation is propped up. We grow up amidst an ideology of freedom, but are ill-equipped to enjoy it.

For things to improve, women need to start talking. If we can learn to speak honestly about sex and sexual health in private; so we can also learn to thrust this issue into the public realm. We must demand the reform that we deserve: educational reform in order to enact social reform.

Let’s get talking.

The article first appeared in OUSU WOMCAM Zine, ‘Bodies’ Trinity ‘13