Service with a trial: A reflection on the damage caused by judgment and interrogation of people buying emergency contraception

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.

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