Service with a trial: A reflection on the damage caused by judgment and interrogation of people buying emergency contraception by LC
Firstly I think it’s very important to say that going to get a morning-after pill need not, by any means, be an awkward or triggering experience – and that’s coming from someone who used to sing “bleep” over the word sex when Sex on Fire was playing. Aside from a few questions, which have to be asked for your safety and to check the pill will be useful to you, it doesn’t have to be (and generally isn’t) any different from visiting the pharmacy to grab any old prescription.
I’ve bought the morning after pill three times in my life. Once due to a broken condom, once because I wasn’t sure my implant had kicked in yet, and once the morning I woke up after a serious sexual assault.
Two out of those three times it was a quick, discreet and friendly exchange. Of course, there were questions I had to answer. It’s a pharmacist’s job to check that they’re dispensing medication that is correct and safe for you. What it is not, I would argue, a pharmacist’s job to do is to judge the person in front of them on what they are buying and how they came to need it.
I can remember very clearly the morning after my sexual assault. I can’t remember entirely if I even needed that morning-after pill. The memories of the night before were hazy in places, and are still grotesquely vivid in others. In a city I didn’t know, overcome with emotions it would take so long to come to terms with, going to get that pill felt like the first tiny step towards regaining control of my body.
I chucked on the most oversized of all hoodies, shuffled out of my uni halls and across the street to the nearest pharmacy. I queued for a bit, approached the pharmacy and asked for the morning-after pill. Immediately I could tell that I’d said the wrong thing. An expression of undisguised disdain settled the face of the pharmacist and set the tone for a hugely awkward and uncomfortable encounter. But it was the way that this encounter ended, in what was perhaps just a throwaway comment for her, that brought the world crashing down on me.
“This isn’t something to rely on,” she said, “You need to be more careful in the future.”
The first authority figure I had spoken to, my first port of call to let me take back control, and she had just told me to be more careful, because to her eyes what had happened must have been my fault. Now, the very suggestion that I was at all to blame for what happened back then would absolutely enrage me. There is no way I would let anyone I know get away with even the merest suggestion of victim shaming. But back then, hungover, alone and overwhelmed with fear and shame, her comment just affirmed what I really believed to be true; and set the tone for the way I would think about that assault for months to follow.
Now, to be fair, she didn’t know. Because someone who has just been sexually assaulted has no big sign over their head screaming it to the world. That morning could have been the visit where the condom had broken, or a visit where I’d forgotten to take my pill, or any other of the thousand legitimate reasons where it is completely fine to take the morning-after pill. And in any of those circumstances, I might have been able to respond with an eye roll and then forget.
But actually, even if you could tell, even if you could spot from a mile off a person who would be destroyed by those words, and stop yourself from saying them, that doesn’t mean that they should be said to anyone else.
I understand that the morning after pill should not be used as a primary form of contraception. I understand because every article I’ve read about it makes it abundantly clear. I understand because it says so on the packet. This seems a point that the world is very eager to get across, but does this mysterious person – who shells out up to £35 for a pill every time they get laid, is completely unaware of their other options and never bothers to read the label actually exist? I doubt it.
Before writing this, I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t an isolated experience. I didn’t want to get a story out there that was just due to one pharmacist who overstepped the mark on a bad day. But sadly, the lowest effort internet search revealed that this is an, at best uncomfortable and at worst devastating, experience that has been repeated again and again and again.
To be given a patronising warning, although given the time and context it deeply hurt me, seems like a let-off in comparison to the people who’ve reported a grilling on their relationship status, their sex life, and even their religious beliefs. The price of these pills is already prohibitively expensive for some. Shouldn’t there be a conscious effort to make this as easy and comfortable an experience in every other way we can?
What is so infuriating about this problem to me is the level of inconsistency that seems to plague the pharmacies of the UK. While the majority of experiences of picking up the pill are quick and easy, there is no pattern that can tell you when or where a judgmental attack could take place. I would love to change that. I would love for every pharmacy student to be made to sit down and think about the people who may come to them for the morning-after pill. I would love for them to think about the vast array of circumstances that could bring you there, and to think about, no matter what that circumstance is, each person that comes and asks for it has made a proactive and deliberate choice about their body and about their future.
No one should ever be made to feel like an assault on them was in any way their fault. And the way that that pharmacist behaved towards me four years ago was shocking and sickening. But it’s more than that. No one, no matter what circumstances have brought them there, should ever have to face such judgement and harassment for simply making a choice about their own body.
Why Gay Pride is Essential: Stories from the Early 18th Century Gay Subcultures
When we think of LGBTQ+ figures throughout history, our attention is drawn to the unapologetic activism of Marsha P. Johnson, the iconic literature of Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing’s innovations in technology, and Judith Butler’s critical contributions to queer theory. These brave pioneers excelled in their respective fields and have contributed greatly to the increasing equality for queer people in the West. It is crucial to remember and respect our history, to honour our brothers and sisters of the past, not just during pride season but all year round. Admittedly, my knowledge of queer history was subpar: I answered the question of our history by saying “we have existed since the earliest days of humanity.” Whilst absolutely correct, this assessment of queer history filled me with a sense of emptiness. A rift formed between me and my ancestors and from it poured an insatiable curiosity. – I needed to discover more.
In Britain, homosexuality was punishable under the Buggery Act of 1563. Homosexual men caught having sex were charged with sodomy or attempted sodomy. Homophobia Early Modern England was deeply rooted in Christian tradition and xenophobia, as Jews and ‘Turks’ were accused of bringing homosexuality into Britain. In fact, the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’ were derived from the Biblical tale of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, and there is a wealth of evidence that suggests the English government were fearful of their country falling to sin in the same manner. Sodomy was thus punishable by hefty fines, imprisonment, execution, or hours at the pillory. The public did not treat homosexuals kindly at the pillory. A stage was erected in towns and cities where criminals would be locked into stocks. The public could watch the criminal be whipped and spectators could throw food, rocks, and dead animals at the convict.
Whilst it is interesting to note the origins of homophobic laws, I was more interested in discovering the personal history of our queer ancestors, to discover how they lived, what jobs they worked, where they socialised, and who they socialised with. I was shocked to find the earliest records of a flourishing gay subculture as early as the 1700s in London. London’s gay subculture at this time was only frequented by homosexual men. Whilst there were lesbian subcultures active in France, lesbians within England had not yet formed their own societies. Immersed in the bawdy underbelly of 18th-century society, the men of London’s gay subculture were known as ‘mollies’ and gathered in ‘molly houses.’ These establishments were illegal and often were set up in private accommodations or were hosted under the guise of a legitimate gin shop or coffee-house. Two of the most popular molly houses were run by Mother Clap, a straight woman with an eye for profit, and another on Tottenham Court Road was run by a man named Julius Caesar Taylor. Although not confirmed, Caesar may have been a freed black slave, as it was a trend for slave masters to name their slaves after Roman generals and classical leaders. In these establishments, most frequented on Sunday nights, the mollies would sing bawdy songs and consume alcohol. These liberated spaces allowed mollies to communicate in ways considered to be effeminate or camp, such as by talking in women’s voices, using women’s handheld fans, and greeting each other with kisses. When a new molly entered a molly house for the first time, they were christened with a molly nickname. After their name was assigned, they were baptised by having a glass of gin thrown in their face. Some notable examples of molly nicknames were Fanny Murray, Miss Selina, Princess Seraphina, Kitty Fisher, and Black-eyed Leonora. Inside the molly houses, aside from drinking, singing, and (of course) sex, the mollies regularly undertook a variety of rituals. In the molly houses, there was often a room reserved for mock marriages. These marriages were illegitimate and did not always carry the same commitment as a heterosexual marriage. Some mollies would ‘marry’ for one night whilst others would ‘marry’ in a romantic relationship. For example, in 1727 or 1728, a wedding took place between Moll Irons and an unnamed molly who was a butcher. Their wedding was attended by two bridesmaids, Princess Seraphina, and Miss Kitten. Mock births were also a common ritual in molly houses. Mollies involved in the ceremony would pretend to give birth to a wooden baby, which would then be baptised. These rituals were carried out to mock heterosexual norms and were not seen as a desire to recreate them.
It is important to note that there were few accounts of mollies dressing as women. On the 28th of December 1725, a group of 25 Molies were arrested at a molly house for ‘disrupting the peace.’ The mollies were adorned in masquerade garments and some of the party were dressed in women’s clothing, but female garments seemed to be reserved for special rituals such as the mock birthing ceremonies. While most mollies identified as men, there is evidence that Princess Seraphina appeared in what we would now call drag. At masquerade balls, Princess Seraphina was able to adorn female clothing and utilise female mannerisms without other attendees discovering her biological sex. Rising to popularity in the 1720s, the balls provided a place for members of society to mingle and allowed people to act immorally under the guise of anonymity. It is likely that other men cross-dressed at the masquerades and remained undetected. It was probable that Princess Seraphina would have continued their female escapades unnoticed if not for their appearance in court in 1732 under their male name: John Cooper. Cooper was held at knifepoint by Thomas Gordon, who demanded Cooper to swap his clothes with Gordon’s ragged clothes. Gordon threatened to charge Cooper with sodomy if he reported the robbery. Bravely, Cooper attained a warrant for the arrest of Gordon. In their trial, a washerwoman who had overheard the altercation supported Cooper’s testimony. However, a multitude of witnesses revealed to the judge that Cooper was also known around the area of Drury Lane as Princess Seraphina. Mary Poplet made a statement about Cooper/ Seraphina in court: ‘
‘I have known her highness a pretty while… I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all around her Forehead; and then she would flutter her Fan, and make such fine curt’sies, that you would not know her from a Woman.’
The effectiveness of Princess Seraphina’s disguise suggested they had been adorning women’s clothes for a number of years. Her mastery of female mannerisms alludes that her highness’ disguise possibly ran deeper than just a performance and may reveal one of the earliest instances of transgressive gender identity in Britain.
The information we know about the gay subculture of the early 1700s ironically comes from accounts of those who tried to police homosexuality. During the late 1690s, The Society for the Reformation of Manners was established to restore moral order to the population. Venereal diseases such as syphilis were rampant, so the main aim of The Society was to police what they regarded as immoral sexual behaviour and reduce transmission. By 1698, the society had made their first arrest of a gay man: Captain Edward Rigby. He was apprehended on Guy Fawkes night after propositioning William Minton for sex in St James’s park. Unknown to Rigby, who had already been tried and acquitted for charges of sodomy, this encounter had been arranged by a leading member of The Society. Minton, acting as bait, lured Rigby to a public house where officers of The Society were stationed to collect evidence. As Rigby tried to initiate a sexual encounter with Bray, the officers barged into the room and arrest Rigby. He was sentenced to a year in prison, fined one thousand pounds and was ordered to spend two hours on the pillory. This arrest was widely reported, and Rigby fled the country after his release.
The successful arrest of Rigby had attracted much public attention and had given The Society extensive press. The entrapment of homosexuals continued throughout the 18th century, and agents of The Society would frequent areas around the capital that were known locations where gay men walk and proposition each other for sex, such as the Royal Exchange, St James’s Park, and various bridges around London. In a 1707 campaign, The Society arrested over 40 gay men in a single week. Three of these men committed suicide before trial, including the woollen draper Augustin Grant, who hung himself in his cell.
Attacks on homosexuality also persisted independent from The Society. In 1726, Mother Clap’s molly house was raided by the police. Mother Clap’s establishment and the location of various other molly houses were disclosed to the authorities by the molly, Mark Partridge. Partridge aided the police after an argument with his lover, Mr Harrington. As a result of the raid on Mother Clap’s house, three men were hanged, two men were sent to the pillory, one man died in prison, and many named and unnamed individuals were forced into hiding. Mother Clap, also known as Margaret Clap, was also tried. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment, a fine of twenty marks, and to stand in the pillory at Smithfield. Being pelted and abused so severely at the pillory, Mother Clap fainted multiple times, fell off the pillory once, and was sent to Newgate prison in convulsive fits. It is not known whether she survived her two-year prison sentence.
The accounts of executions and public humiliation of gay men in England is diabolical. As I continued my research, I was horrified to read of the atrocities against gay men during the Dutch purges. Between 1730-1731, the States of Holland informed every town that the crime of sodomy was punishable by death and the names of those prosecuted would be revealed. Anyone discovered housing a known homosexual would also be executed, their corpses burnt, or thrown in the sea, or would not receive a proper burial. Upwards of 250 men were summoned for crimes of sodomy. 90 of these men failed to appear, fleeing the country, and at least 60 men were sentenced to death. In Amsterdam, Pieter Marteyn, James Sohn and Johannes Keep were strangled and burnt. Maurits van Eeden and Cornelis Boes – both eighteen at the time – were submerged alive in a barrel of water and then drowned. Many other men were thrown into the sea attached to weights, hung, strangled, and burnt. At Zuidhorn on the 24th of September 1731, at least 21 men were executed. Gerrit Loer, Hendrik Berents and Hanz Berents were all scorched alive, hung to death, and their bodies were then burnt to ash. Eight teenagers aged 16-19 were also strangled and then burnt. Jan Ides, a boy of 18, upon hearing his sentence, said to the court: “I forgive you for the sin which you have committed against me.” The simple, yet powerful words of Jan Ides struck a chord within me. We must do all we can and more to preserve the history of our brothers and sisters who died in the name of ancient ‘justice.’ We must not forget the suffering people like Jan Ides and the countless other oppressed queer communities mentioned above.
The story of the 18th-century subculture serves as a great testament to the hardship and oppression queer people in England and Europe faced. Yet, in the face of death, persecution and humiliation, our queer ancestors continued to thrive, party and love in the illicit underbelly of 18th century London. I hope that this snapshot tour has encouraged you to look further into queer history, and if anyone ever asks you why we celebrate pride, maybe link them to this article.
I credit all the information present in this article to the work of Rictor Norton and his publication: Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830. Norton’s work expands upon the points I discussed in this article and continues the story of the subculture beyond the 1730s over the span of a century. It is the holy grail of 18th century queer studies!!!
I would also recommend reading into the following books:
Louis Crompton: Homosexuality and Civilization
David Higgins: Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600
David F. Greenberg: The Construction of Homosexuality
‘You Dropped My Case But That Did Not Drop My Trauma: A Reflection On My Experiences’
I can remember how it felt to finally tell someone, I was only 9 but it was still a huge secret I had been keeping in for years. We had a ChildLine assembly at my primary school and I realised that what had happened wasn’t normal and that I needed to tell someone, so I told my teacher.
I went through countless police interviews and my mum cried a lot, it took 2 years of this before we could get a court date, it felt like forever. A week before the date we went to tour the court so I felt comfortable on the day, the man in reception gave me sweets and they asked if I wanted the judge to wear a wig, I was shown the room I would be in appearing via video so I felt safe and I can remember feeling relieved that this would be all over soon. A few nights before we were supposed to go, mum called me downstairs crying and told me the police had dropped the case due to insufficient evidence as I had waited years to say anything and it would be my word against his, by this point I was 11.
I felt angry and disappointed like my world had been ruined and I had upset my mum for nothing. When things like this happen you start to doubt yourself, did I not deserve the justice I was promised? Why did I sit through hours and hours of going over the same things, unlocking memories I didn’t want to relive and telling strangers the secrets I had been keeping for years all for nothing? It’s taken me a very long time to learn I did the right thing, although the outcome wasn’t one I’d hoped for it wasn’t all for nothing and I am more than the bad things that happened to me.
I struggled a lot throughout secondary school. I used unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm, I had a lot of anger in me that would come out towards my peers, teachers and parents. I never felt the same as anyone else, like I didn’t fit in with any friendship group I was in and that my future was a dull one. Besides all of that I had massive control issues and would lose it if things didn’t go my way, I was either upset or angry 99% of the time and I hated the way I acted and felt but couldn’t help it.
Now, that all sounds pretty negative however it’s all valid and these things need to be spoken about. We are conditioned to only speak about the positives, only show our best selves and hide away anything that could make us seem different or less than. I believe this is a huge contributing factor to rape culture and the ‘suffer in silence’ mentality. Everyone deals with things differently, and it’s hard to know what’s normal in recovery when sexual abuse is still largely a taboo subject.
My experiences weren’t positive ones, I still deal with what I went through every day, I’m still learning how to manage strong emotions and intrusive thoughts but that is okay. We don’t need to be happy all the time, our feelings are valid and repressing them will most likely make things worse. I think one of the most damaging mentalities that gets pushed on sexual assault and violence survivors is that it’s something you need to pretend never happened and you should never talk about it. How are we supposed to heal and grow as people if we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel and overcome these feelings?
As I have grown to better understand my brain, mental health and why I am the way I am, one of the things that sticks out to me the most is that I spent way more time trying to act like I was okay than I did trying to overcome my problems and really be okay. I think this stems from this idea that you need to put on a brave face and act fine no matter what you’re going through. Working through your trauma isn’t an easy process, there are no quick fixes, and it might take time but that’s completely okay.
I still deal with my trauma, I have nightmares that sometimes make me not want to sleep, I get anxious in certain situations and I get days where my emotions feel as though they’re too much - the difference now is I acknowledge these feelings, work through them and let them pass. I’ve come to learn that it is okay to need help and to ask for it and it’s okay to have bad days.
One piece of advice I have for survivors of sexual violence is to let yourself feel what you need to feel. You’re valid, your emotions are valid and your healing journey is valid. Healing is not linear, there may be times you think you’re over something and it comes back and knocks you off your feet. Other times you might surprise yourself and work through something quicker than you thought you would. Everyone deals with things differently, give yourself credit, you’re a survivor and you’re strong!
Don’t suffer in silence, speak up, find resources that can help you and take things at your own pace. We deserve to be listened to, believed, and helped where we need it. Our experiences don’t define us, we are so much more than that.
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