The Walk of Shame

24 November 2020

Content warning: pregnancy, sexism, contraception 

Let’s talk about sex. Specifically, the unprotected kind. In Australia, this doesn’t have to result in an unwanted pregnancy, thanks to pharmaceuticals. There are currently two types of emergency contraceptives (EC) available to purchase over the counter: levonorgestrel and ulipristal acetate. Both prevent fertilisation of an egg and are most effective when taken soon after the sexual encounter.

There are many positive aspects of EC. Available for purchase at all local chemists, it’s easily accessible regardless of location. It can be purchased without identification, so you do not have to disclose your age. Further, EC has relatively minimal short-term side effects, with any nausea, headaches and fatigue subsiding within a few days. More prolonged side-effects include changes in menstruation, which can result in an earlier, later or heavier period depending on where you are in your cycle. Importantly, EC has no proven long-term side effects, making it an effective, reliable and safe method to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

However, while the purchase of such medications is often the result of a mature and considered decision, it is highly stigmatised. The ‘Emergency Contraceptive Pill’ (EC) is interchangeably referred to as ‘The Morning After Pill,’ or ‘Plan B,’ all of which possess varying negative connotations alluding to a mistake or act to be avoided. In this way, the labels act to punish the individual, rather than reward them for a considered purchase regarding their body. Unfortunately, this is only the start of the stigma attached to EC.

Across the many independent stories, I have heard regarding the purchase of EC, shared feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt abound. These are echoed regardless of whether the sex occurred with a partner or stranger, whether they went to the chemist accompanied or alone. Writing for POPSUGAR, one woman reported she was “looked at differently” by the pharmacist upon requesting EC and subsequently treated like a “reckless child”. The extent of anxiety is so great that studies report up to 75% of individuals have avoided the purchase of EC altogether. The suggestion that fear and anxiety is preventing individuals from seeking necessary medical help is alarming for both the mental and physical health of those concerned.

After requesting to purchase EC, you must fill out a questionnaire. A comprehensive study in 2011 suggested this “irrelevant” and “intrusive” questionnaire was an “outdated” practice, and it would be far more beneficial for the pharmacist to have an “empathetic conversation” with the individual. Nine years later, the questionnaire is still a mandatory aspect of purchasing EC, despite evidence suggesting it is not only a hindrance but harmful, too.

Firstly, you must specify the number of hours since unprotected sex. As the effectiveness of EC diminishes over time, it is necessary to ensure the medication works successfully. However, unlike most options, the question requires a specific number to be written, forcing the individual to recount and detail the amount of time since the act. It thus draws attention to the sexual act as the issue of focus, and the person seeking EC is implicitly punished for their part. Further, the questionnaire asks why EC is required: was it a broken condom or a missed contraceptive pill? This fails to provide further evidence of need, which has already been recognised, but instead assigns blame, as one is asked to establish the degree of fault that is attributed to them. This amplifies feelings of guilt and shame regarding the sexual encounter, with any pleasure from the sexual act itself replaced by negativity.

Consequently, the negative effects of EC are largely societal, rather than medical. The promotion of EC is minimal, with most people hearing about it via word of mouth. As such, there may be those needing to access it who lack the relevant information. This lack of promotion is likely due to stigma. Despite increasingly progressive attitudes towards premarital sex in society, women in particular who engage in sexual activities still afford greater judgement than men. The phrase ‘walk of shame’ applies almost exclusively to women, suggesting having one-night stands are something women should be ashamed of engaging in. In contrast, men are often congratulated for ‘getting laid’ on a night out, which presents positive connotations that strengthen both ego and confidence. Similarly, the plethora of insults applied to women who are sexually active, such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, serve to punish women for their sexual behaviour, without an equivalent vocabulary for males.

It is hypocritical for the media to promote an age of sexual liberation and sexual pleasure when such acts are informally sanctioned with stigma. It seems sexual freedom is still determined by the ideologies that promote female purity and innocence. It’s on us, as a society, to help change these messages, so future generations can grow up without viewing their sexual experiences as synonymous with shame.

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