By Eve Willis
The names in this article are pseudonyms.
If you go to your local pharmacy to get the morning after pill, not only will that cost you £25, but chances are you’ll also be faced with a humiliating, unnecessary interrogation. But navigating the nightmare of women’s sexual healthcare system does not stop at an embarrassing trip at the pharmacy after an ill-advised night-out. For instance, if you have made an appointment at the doctor’s to get contraception, you will be presented with a range of all equally shit options, the most popular being the pill and the implant, which will both pump your body with hormones leading to drastic implications for your mental and physical health. Or if you have been sexually assaulted, it’s likely you’ll be forced to answer a barrage of painful questions.
Every experience of accessing female sexual healthcare in this country is a poignant reminder that we are still subject to an inherently sexist system that is governed by archaic, harmful, and quite frankly untrue socially constructed ideas of men, women, and their relationship to sex.
A few weeks ago, the Better for Women report was released, arguing that there are too many barriers that prevent women’s access to proper sexual health care. Suggesting that “the fragmentation of sexual and reproductive services is a barrier to better women’s health”, the report calls for free, or at least affordable, emergency contraception available over the counter and online.
And they have a point. There is no reason why women should not have affordable and easy access to a range of contraceptives, abortion options, care during and after pregnancy, preventive intervention for reproductive issues throughout their lives, and above all a safe space to talk about these issues without fear of judgment.
Yet, with The Advisory Group on Contraception finding that almost half of all councils in England have closed, or plan to cut, the number of sites providing contraception services between 2015 and 2019, it is clear that women’s sexual healthcare has not been taken seriously.
Women up and down the country frequently report a difficulty in accessing contraception, especially students and young professionals who are often registered with a GP in a different city. “I waited for half an hour in the queue to be told that they don’t prescribe the pill at the walk-in appointments. It made me feel as though my reproductive issues weren’t regarded as important […] and that has left me having to go to extremes to access what I feel is a basic health care medication for me”, one person interviewed for this piece stated.
Often, women who visit their doctors seeking help and reassurance leave more confused or placated with the pill as a “solution”. Katie, 24, who suffered for two years with extreme pain and irregular period, was told by a doctor she might be suffering from Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). “Even though I have many if not all the symptoms for this, every time they have refused to diagnose due to lack of funding for ultrasounds”, she deplores. She was given the contraceptive pill to simulate regular periods, an option she did not really want. But with little alternatives, she was forced to settle for an option which made her feel like she had “no control over her body.” Alisha, 22, was given the pill at the age of 15 after a 10-minute appointment with a nurse: “It was as if I was sent off to just get on with it.” It wasn’t until three years of taking the pill that she realised what it was doing to her body, and she now claims that she doesn’t “feel comfortable putting things in my body when the medical professionals prescribing them don’t seem able to have full confidence it the products themselves.”
Yes, the fortune of living in a northern European country like the U.K must be recognised; women’s reproductive rights are protected, contraception, abortion and sexual health care are available, and those living in areas with better services report relatively positive experiences. But it is not good enough. And even if the system was functioning to its intended ability, the elephant in the room still has not been tackled.
Sexual healthcare still places a burden on the women by placing responsibility on them to take contraceptives, by enforcing restrictive abortion legislation, by perpetuating a culture of shame and embarrassment in clinics, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries. In the face of all of that, women have to tolerate the cards they’ve been dealt and be grateful for the options available. One has to wonder: If men could get pregnant, how different would sexual healthcare be?
In the United Kingdom, women now account for 51% of the total population and 47% of the workforce, so why is women’s sexual healthcare stuck in the last century, unable to meet the demands of today? Perhaps a lack of funding? The prevalence of more other public health concerns deemed more important? The taboo and stigma attached to women and men alike discussing their sexual health? A genuine disinterest on the part of the government to do more? A sentiment that enough has been done?
All of the above would be the most accurate. More importantly, these are not isolated issues, but rather stem from a public health system which is founded upon a systematically unfair and gendered structural foundation which privileges the internalised biases of the male voices who founded it.
A cultural change is needed, but in a society where male contraceptive trials have been halted for fear of side effects (how ironic !) and where one third of all men and women don’t know what the clitoris is in 2019, it seems as though implementing structural change and tackling the harmful narrative about female sexuality won’t be an easy feat.
Eve Willis is a final year Liberal Arts student at the University of Surrey.