The NHS has been lampooned this weekend for the emergence of highly sexist adverts promoting emergency contraceptives to young women, asking them whether they had considered that they would have to give up stilettos and lipstick if they were to become mothers. Because apparently young parenthood is a matter of consideration exclusively between a young woman, her stilettos and her lipstick. Because according to this ad, which aimed to promote emergency contraception, these two items are the most important things in a young woman’s life. Forget a university degree, a career; forget holidays abroad, Russian literature and home ownership: it’s heels and makeup that the NHS seems to think fills up our silly, tiny, frilly little brains. I wonder how many women were involved in the ad campaign?
But let’s look deeper than this, because the problem goes much further than ignorant gender stereotyping. Indeed, it goes even further than the NHS marketing team’s admission of a total lack of respect for 50 per cent of the population. This is not just a matter of the wrong clipart filled into the wrong slots. The real problem here is that it’s not women’s intentions they’re doubting, but rather the fate of the poor fathers.
It’s important here to mention that yes, there is a male equivalent to this ad – but I can’t help feeling it would have been better if there weren’t, considering its content and the general message it puts out. What, then, might we envision this male equivalent consists of? A snapback and a bottle of Lynx Africa? Nope. It’s a games console controller, because at least in this heavily stereotyped and simplified reality the NHS has allowed men to retain legitimate interests and hobbies.
But the real stinger is the message put at the bottom of the ad for men, which was significantly left off the women’s ad, which warns ‘bware da baby trap – use a condom’. Note the vastly inaccurate grammar, which is perhaps surprisingly not a typo, but a serious marketing decision made on behalf of the NHS.
The dangerous message it’s putting out is that women make ill-informed decisions about motherhood, entering into it too early either by being inattentiveness with contraceptives, or by neglecting to weigh up the pros and cons properly first. Almost fair enough. But when it comes to the quite frankly bizarre ad for young men, things becomes a bit more nuanced. Because who exactly is it that is laying this baby ‘trap’? It’s certainly not the unborn child. It is, of course, women.
Men are told ‘wear a condom and it’ll be fine’. But condoms break, and whose responsibility is it to pick up the pieces then? Looking back at the few times I’ve had to go into Boots with a friend to get emergency contraception for them or for myself, sexual partners never accompanied, and even more rarely were they informed that we were even going.
The NHS seem to be entirely missing the problem facing young women today. Although there are of course young people of all genders who fail to bother with contraception, the overriding fear I think for the vast majority of women taking a new male sexual partner or even trying to navigate sex with a long term one, is that they won’t understand that a condom is not the end of their contraceptive responsibilities.
Some people are allergic to latex, others forget their pill, or their current mode of hormonal contraception simply fails to work. Even when a condom is used properly there’s still a risk of pregnancy. Then the woman is often left alone to either go to the chemist for emergency contraception herself, or perhaps even organise an abortion if the pregnancy was discovered further down the line.
Don’t get me wrong, I know women are becoming increasingly comfortable discussing sex and contraception with their partners, and that a lot of men are responsible people who wouldn’t hesitate to come along to the clinic for emotional support. But what we need the NHS to be promoting at the moment is not just emergency contraception, but rather a change in what some men consider to be their limited contraceptive responsibility. And I think a lot of women would agree with me.
Men don’t just need to know that contraceptives are important – they also need to know that when having sex with a woman, they are entering into a contract to both support and accept her contraceptive decisions. If you’re having sex with her, it’s safe to assume you’ve agreed to the form of contraceptive in use, whether she’s got the coil or you’re wearing a condom. Of course it’s slightly different if she’s lied to you about it, as the NHS ads seem to infer is entirely possible, but that’s a topic for another day.
The point is that if you’re a cis man having sex with a cis woman, you’ve got to accept the possibility you could get her pregnant, and that anything she goes through afterwards, whether that be the morning after pill, abortion or motherhood, you have a responsibility to be there to support her every step of the way. Puppies aren’t just for Christmas, and one night stands do not cease to exist once you’ve walked out the door.
This does not mean to say that you have the right to try to overhaul her contraceptive rights, as one friend once told me about a one night stand who, the morning after, attempted to pressure her into taking the morning after pill. She was on the contraceptive pill, and had told him so beforehand and the day after repeatedly (note that using a condom didn’t seem to cross his mind). He was a medical student no less.
I guess what I’m trying to say, to uninformed NHS marketing staff and men everywhere, is that baby-making is not a ‘trap’ young women trick men into. Young women, in my experience, are highly intelligent beings whose interests are not restricted to shoes that could be torture weapons and cosmetics (though there’s nothing wrong with those who are).
Moreover, as many women continue to prove, there’s no reason to cut out the heels and lipstick, or indeed the university education, career or hobbies and interests. We as women are perfectly capable of making our own reproductive decisions, thank you very much, so you’d best take heed and remember that.