The Vagenda

TMI : The Morning After Pill. Why I Took it, Where I Got it, and What I Learned

 ’There’s nothing sexier than emergency contraception’
Ah the morning after pill, the emergency contraception that’s a pain to get, a joy to have. It’s the last resort of contraceptives and the word ‘emergency’ is apt; there’s nothing fun or easy about emergencies. The morning after pill’s a tricky one to write about – the experience of getting it changes every time. Some factors stay constant, however; it involves a fair bit of panic, a fair bit of stress and usually a judgey glance or a knowing smirk or two.

I’ve had to take 5 during my time as a sexually active young woman, including 3 in the last 6 months, which has confused my uterus so much it probably thinks it’s a boy now. Now, I’m not on the pill, or any other form of contraception. This would be because my mother had breast cancer early enough for it to potentially run in the family, and there’s a link between breast cancer and taking the pill. The link is variously dubious or strong depending on what doctor you speak to. The problem is in the hormones, ruling out pretty much every other form of contraception. Now, just to preempt any commenters here, I’ve checked out my options a lot. But if you’d read a letter aged 11 saying you had a 60-80% of developing breast cancer; your two-time cancer patient mother mentally conditioned you to think of the pill as a death trap; and no doctor between London and Edinburgh could give you a same answer about this mythical link, you’d probably steer clear of hormonal contraception too until you had some kind of statement signed by God, the Queen and the Dalai Lama saying it wouldn’t raise your chances by even 1%

So, the upshot is I have always had to rely on the trusty old condom to keep those plucky young sperm from hijacking my eggs thereby making a small person out of it who would enslave me to a life of drudgery, scrounging off the state and being alone forever whilst my troubled child is jailed numerous times for petty offences driven by their lack of a paternal role model. Or at least, that’s what would happen if the Daily Mail were to be believed. So, without further ado, we shall take a whistle stop tour of my emergency contraceptive history.

Morning After Pill the First

Age: 16

When you’re at boarding school and your boyfriend still lives with his mum, the opportunities for full on genital mushing are rare. So it is that we find ourselves in someone’s bedroom at a house party, having sex. Everything is hunky dory – until the boyfriend finishes, pulls out and whispers those dreaded words: ‘Oh shit, condom broke’. What follows is a night of turmoil and anxiety. I’ve never got the morning after pill before but know the basics. I’m just shitting myself that Boots won’t be open and how the hell do I get it if not because the school is my registered GP and they’re such dicks they’ll probably tell my mum who probably knows I’m sexually active but it’s just one of those things that we will never, ever talk about. The couple before us are getting the same thing and I see a slight smirk from the assistant as I ask for it (meanwhile the boyfriend is laughing at incontinence pads for old ladies). It makes my period come a week late, so while at home I have to walk down to Boots twice in the snow and ice because I cocked the first one up and my parents look at me funny. All in all a harrowing experience I never wish to repeat, especially the week where all I could think about was ‘how the hell am I going to get an abortion without telling my mum?’

Morning After Pill the Second

Age: 18

Uni Halloween party, I get to have sex with the hot posh boy I’ve had my eye on. It’s my first one night stand at uni. We start off with a condom, but brewers droop dictates that it slides off quite a lot and we end up having sex for a while unprotected, during which time posh-boy goes ahead and comes. ‘Oh… you’re not on the pill?’ he says when I start freaking out. What’s worse than having to do the walk of shame? The walk of shame with your one night stand on a Sunday in freezing Edinburgh with no tights because you were wearing fishnets last night and no Boots seem to be open. I’m profusely saying ‘I only know about it because I had to take it one time before because the condom split with my ex, I haven’t done it a lot, I don’t want you to think I’ve had to do this a lot’. Period comes 2 days after, 2 weeks after my last period. Joy of joys.

Interlude of about 2 years where I have sensible & safe sex with boyfriend and no need for god old MAP. After that I move to Paris, take the morning after pill three times in six months and start to really question my life choices:

Morning After Pill the Third

Age: 20

We find ourselves now in the City of Love. Halloween again! I’m also ironically in the same costume as the last time (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!). We have sex twice protected and once not in the early hours of the morning where I’m so sleep addled I don’t realise he’s come. In broken English: ‘You’re on the pill right?’ NEH, WRONG. I’d assumed that if we’d used a condom the first two times, he’d know to at least pull out the third. I suppose he assumed if I was just letting him have sex with me I must be on contraception. He also says to me, ‘you weren’t worried about catching anything?’ with a slight look of disgust that suggests my negligence was a far worse crime than his. Off we go to the pharmacy where he essentially whispers what we need and the woman looks me up and down then addresses only him with the instructions for taking it. Then she asks for 7€ and I’m like HOLY SHIT, WHAT A BARGAIN! and break out into an inane grin. French lover then loses all remaining respect for me.


Morning After Pill the Fourth

Age: 20

At Christmas I go for drinks with a guy I used to see when I was 18, being sick of smarmy judgey Frenchmen whose behaviour continually troubles me. Thanks to our Irish blood we both get fairly hammered. Back at his, as things get heated, he goes to get a condom. He physically leaves the room to get a condom. One would assume he’d put it on. The speed with which his come face turns into a panic face tells me otherwise. The question ‘You’re on the pill, right?’ has never enraged me so much, so I do a lot of shouting and he does a lot of apologising. The Sunday before Christmas Day and I am again shitting myself that nothing will be open. This is the first time I haven’t had a guy with me when I get it and the assistant at Boots is so completely unmoved and so completely mundane that I want to jump over and kiss her for not throwing me any vaguely funny looks. Unfortunately, I get my period about 3 times in 2 months which is potentially the least fun I’ve ever had in my life.

Morning After Pill the Fifth (and hopefully final)

Age : just turned 21

Waking up on your 21st in bed with a beautiful Parisian model medical student sounds like the dream, right? Add to that a trip to the pharmacy for your old friend MAP and then a mad dash to Gare du Nord to pick up your parents while sperm is still leaking out of you like a broken tap, it becomes slightly more ‘nightmare’ territory. Again he does the whole ‘you’re not on the pill?!’ thing, looks at me like it’s all my fault and kindly informs me that last time we had sex (if you can call it that since he had serious problems keeping it hard) he came as well. This is my second time getting it in France and it’s eerily similar to the first; model boy whispers, the woman gives me a death glare then addresses the beautiful skinned man, ‘You know it’s only for emergencies?’

So, five morning after pills down the line, what have we learnt?

1. Never assume. If you’re going to make any assumption, assume the guy assumes you’re on the pill. They shouldn’t, like you shouldn’t assume they’ll pull out. In other words, it’s a shared responsibility. For all these instances, apart from maybe the 4th, I’d accept 50% responsibility.

However, other people don’t see it that way. Society attributes contraceptive responsibility to the woman, partly because the majority of contraceptives are designed for women. Women shouldn’t get themselves pregnant, silly young teenagers shouldn’t get themselves pregnant – that’s the standard narrative. The single, teenage mother remains a stigmatised stereotype in the media while the teenage father has so far escaped this harsh spotlight of scrutiny.

2. Don’t buy into this social norm. I remember the apologies I made to the guy in Edinburgh because I thought knowing about how to get the morning after pill showed me to be some kind of reckless harlot. In reality, he had no clue what to do; he came with me to be polite, he was shocked at the price (and never paid me back the half we agreed, the bastard) and he wouldn’t really have been that concerned if I hadn’t bothered with it. These days, I don’t pay attention to old hags in French pharmacies or guys judging me or any of that. I do what I have to do to ensure I don’t get pregnant until I want to. It’s a nuisance, but it’s just something I have to do. If the assistant is a dick they’re assuming something about you based on what trip to the pharmacy – and we all know the problem with assumptions (see point 1).

3. I’m not sure why the pill is priced so highly in the UK; presumably it’s to discourage people using it as anything other than an emergency contraceptive. I realised in France that half of the pain of the thing is its price, which is ridiculously high, especially for teenagers or students. I was lucky at 16 that I’d been educated well enough to know where to start. But if Boots had been closed I’d have been clueless and panicked. This is why sex education is so important for teenagers; the price, the social humiliation – they’re often not big enough to discourage an adult (though here at the Vagenda we’ve talked to many who have been treated appallingly while seeking it out – thankfully most have stood their ground), but they certainly are for teenagers. Considering the rate of teen pregnancies in the UK the support for sexually active teenagers is desperately lacking.

4. I’m going to get a tattoo of ‘I’m not on the pill / je prends pas la pillule’ like a halo around my pubes, and also as a tramp stamp. Alternatively, I need to learn to let a guy know straight off that I’m not on contraception and I’m not OK with being ejaculated into if we’re not using a condom. Which we should be, anyway.

5. Bring on the male contraceptive! Quickly! Then maybe, just maybe, we can dispel the notion that just because a baby is conceived in a woman, it takes 2 people to do the conceiving, that the onus of contraception lies with both parties and that the decision to get the morning after pill is still a responsible one, even if that responsibility might have been lacking the night before.

- RW

29 thoughts on “TMI : The Morning After Pill. Why I Took it, Where I Got it, and What I Learned

  1. I’ve had to get the emergency contraceptive pill 4 times in the UK and never had to pay – the chemists i got it from (three times at different branches of Boots and once at an independent) offered it for free if you go and answer some questions anonymously – age, how many times you’ve taken it etc. The chemists i spoke to have always been really professional but those manning the counter have, on occasion, been awful! One pointedly said she couldn’t hear me – i’d lowered my voice as it was a tiny chemist and a tiny town – and made me practically shout out that I needed it, not ideal!

  2. This is brilliant, but for the sake of anyone who doesn’t know, it’s worth mentioning that you can get the morning after pill for free on the NHS if you go to a drop in clinic, sexual health or otherwise. I’ve been 4 times, all separate locations, once when I was 16, once when I was 18, and twice when I was 21 (I’m 23 now), and without exception the staff were super helpful, friendly and non-judgey, probably because they’ve done it a thousand times before.

  3. Not that I wish to be a massive killjoy or harbinger of doom, but surely if you’re not taking the pill because you’re worried about the hormones affecting your risk of breast cancer, than the MAP is the absolute last thing you should be taking? It’s just a massive, massive dose of the regular daily pill, is it not? I completely understand your reason for taking the MAP and hey, if the alternative is an unwanted child then obviously the decision is entirely yours, but you haven’t mentioned that fact at all and so I worry that this is quite a misleading article. There are plenty of girls out there who will worry about taking the pill because of the scaremongering and horror stories (realistic and noteworthy or otherwise) but who may read this and think “hey, no worries, the MAP doesn’t have any proper side-effects like the pill other than being expensive and making my period late, I can just take that instead!” I appreciate that you aren’t deliberately advocating such an approach, but it’s an easy interpretation to take away from your personal experience.

    As an aside, the one time I took the MAP, I suffered incredible mood swings but mostly felt hideously low for two days. I do have a tendency towards depression anyway and I think that the pill exacerbates it, but it wasn’t pointed out to me and I had no way of suspecting that would happen. That’s a side effect that’s rarely discussed.

    • The author asked me to post this:

      ‘I also see commenters are suggesting that my personal use of the MAP seems to be some kind of alternative to avoid oestrogen progesterone. I thought I’d mentioned enough in the article that the MAP screws up your hormones but I suppose I could have mentioned it explicitly. Considering it was taken as an emergency it’s obviously not something I rely on and I guess 5 times in my life vs the number of times I have sex is a pretty small amount compared to being on the pill for 10 years. Originally I had a couple of hundred more words on the whole breast cancer thing but I didn’t want it all to be too long. Anyway, if you need to add something about that then go ahead because using it as an alternative to normal hormonal contraception is not what I’m suggesting at all! ‘

  4. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this article. Emergency contraception is a much higher dose of progesterone/estrogen than a regular contraceptive pill.

  5. I enjoyed this article, humorous and written with feeling. The author has (hopefully) learned her lesson. Yes, the MAP has a hefty dose of hormones but what was her alternative? an unwanted pregnancy? abortion? inaction and pray that she wasn’t caught out? Consumption of a regular contraceptive pill leads to extra oestrogen being taken up by the body over a long period of time. It is this constant, long term exposure that may lead to damage and not the occasional increase in hormones the MAP provides.

    • I can’t tell people enough how great my IUD is. I never suited hormonal contraception and when you’re in a relationship where you’ve both been STD tested and are safe, it’s literally the best thing ever.

    • I was going to mention this too. Like the author I don’t take the pill because of the link with breast cancer/family history. Solution: hormone free copper IUD. Works like a charm. Yeah, the periods are a bit more heavy and painful, but your not filling your body with progestogen/oestrogen and once fitted you don’t have to think about it for ten whole years.

  6. I’m on the copper IUD as I don’t like using hormonal contraception and don’t have the self-control to use condoms. This lead to a similar experience when I was 18 where I took the morning after pill twice in about a month and then had a period every three weeks for the next few months – and got thrush for the first time, which wasn’t fun! Just to point out, since you mentioned pulling out in your article, although it probably makes it much less likely you’ll get pregnant it is definitely not a foolproof method as pre-ejaculate can contain sperm. So it’s either condom on the whole time or consider yourself not fully protected!

  7. This is a wonderfully thought out article but I wish to mention something…

    If you are hoping for men to ‘at least pull out’ then you are at risk of a lot of nasty things, including pregnancy even if they don’t ejaculate inside you. It isn’t all er, released in that final moment, and what was deposited before (along with all that skin to skin/mucosa contact) could be enough to give you all those horrible infections you’ve heard about…and a baby.

    The withdrawal method is one of the preferred contraceptive methods of the Catholic Church, I think we’ve all seen how this goes down >.>

    A back up barrier that could further reduce risk of pregnancy, but wouldn’t protect against infections (condoms are, as you know ‘the go’) is a diaphragm, which can be fitted over the cervix by some health professionals and helps to stop those little bastards getting at your eggs.

    *I’ve made the trip for the MAP with my partner, it was horrible but for completely different reasons…wishing we were in a situation where we could treat that incidental thing where I forgot my pill and we were in the same timezone as the excuse we wanted to start a family…but knowing that we couldn’t, and that it will be years until that is remotely a viable choice. *Balling, sobbing hysterics* In the mean time, to avoid just that experience again I have the hormone implant, which I am happily tolerating very well. Alright for some I know…

    *Right on re ignoring smarmy guys – if a guy looks at you with disgust that you would ‘allow’ them to have sex with you without a condom (though it sounds more like you had the reasonable expectation that they put one on, and they didn’t)…STARE RIGHT BACK. He has taken just as much care for his own sexual health and the fact that guys still have this amazing attitude makes me think they are cruising for a bruising!
    - Men with the default “You’re on the pill right” attitude deserve to pay that child support…it takes two to tango.

  8. I felt a little bit sad for you that you felt you had to write such a long opening bit justifying not being on the pill. ‘Because I want to avoid breast cancer’ is a brilliant and valid reason, but ‘because I don’t want to’ is just as brilliant and valid. I’ve never taken any form of hormonal contraception – for no better reason than the fact that I don’t want to – and have always insisted on condoms. No condom, no sex, dude. No one – sexual partner or otherwise – has ever made me feel that I should have been on the pill, and I think it’s a real shame that anybody has ever put you down in any way for that reason.

    • Bravo. My GP is really good at accepting “because I don’t want to” as a valid reason. I think medical people are kind of obliged to, ethically (although there are always some paternalistic swine).

  9. Er there’s no mention of visiting a STD clinic at any stage here. Shouldn’t that have been a first port of call too? MPA doesn’t protect against STD’s after all. Great article but that missing factor kind of bugged me.

  10. Re: education, I agree that improved sex education is needed, but probably also (somehow… how, though??) some sort of shift in societal views on sex/contraception. Possibly making it ok to talk about, by better education and burning crappy magazines and replacing them all with sensible advice and possibly the Vagenda! I have a friend who is a teacher, and there are apparently some 14 year old girls at her school for whom ‘termination is the contraceptive method of choice’. My friend is both baffled and aghast by this, but since a) she’s mainly heard rumours not hard evidence, b) they do get taught about appropriate contraception and c) she’s not involved in a subject where she can legitimately bring sex ed up, there’s not much she can do.

  11. Your advice is great. Never assume, never, ever, ever let your safety rest on the idea that another human being knows what you know, or assumes the same things you assume. Not if you can help it.

    As you said, he assumed that you wouldn’t be having sex without a condom, unless you were on the pill. And you assumed that he’d know he ought to pull out. Assumptions are scary-dangerous things.

    Guy number 4 was a rat-bastard, intentionally or unintentionally, he made you think he was wearing one when he wasn’t. That’s why i think it’s always good to get the message out there: don’t trust him to do it right. Don’t assume he has. Maybe even put the condom on him *yourself* if you can. I often do.

    The only thing that really worries me, is all the references to “pulling out”. Without a condom, there’s always the chance that he will come, and there’s still a real chance of pregnancy, even if he *doesn’t*. It sounds like you know that now.

    This is a really well-written blog, so I think you’ve got the chance to get the message out there if you highlight it in future posts. “pulling out” is (I think) a little less reliable than the rhythm method. i.e. – it doesn’t count as a form of contraception at all.

  12. Have you thought about an IUD as contraception? They’re hormone free, reliable, last for years, and you don’t have to have had kids to be fitted with one. I wish I’d got one as soon as I became sexually active; I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety and at least three hefty payments for the morning after pill. Plus an argument with the counter assistant in the chemists’s at the end of Rankeillor Street who shouted across the shop “HERE’S YOUR MORNING AFTER PILL.”

  13. Try Japan: finding somewhere open on a Sunday, who speak enough English to understand (mo-ningu afutaa piru, morning after pill), waiting in the silent all-eyes-on-the-floor clinic and £70 later (plus a lot of uncomfortable-ness)…not something I ever want to repeat.

  14. Great article! But next time (if there is a next time!) try heading to boots for the MAP. I’ve taken it three times, twice at a Boots pharmacy and once at an independant pharmacy and never been asked to pay anything.

  15. From the writer again:

    RE: Pulling out. You’re all absolutely right. I don’t condone that as a safe or successful method of contraception, and to be honest I’ve never done it. It’s more in the case of if you’re both being negligent with condoms, pulling out is at least a step down from full on in-vagina ejaculation. Obviously, though, in a perfect world you’d be using suitable contraception.

    RE: STIs. Good point. I get checked up fairly regularly to make sure there’s nothing nasty going on down there, but yes, a good idea if you’ve had unprotected sex.

    RE: Copper IUD. I’ve looked into it. My periods floor me and even my mother’s prescription codeine does very little to lessen the pain. I’ve been advised by a couple of doctors that the IUD can make your periods even heavier and more painful; none of them have been that encouraging when I’ve told them my periods are already so heavy that even Moses couldn’t part them. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take until doctors are willing to give me morphine for the agony that is my monthly devil visitation.

  16. Loved this article! I had an awful experience on my only trip for the morning after pill (so far, hopefully the last!) when I was 17. My boyfriend and I are always careful but the condom broke. Cue mutual panic. Went to Boots, got it for free, but found the guy who gave it to me very judgmental. He suggested maybe I wasn’t responsible enough for sex and kept saying “these things happen if you have reckless unprotected sex” even though I’d explained the whole condom situation. Hope I never have to go again if the experience will be anything like that!

  17. One request – could you *please* not call it the ‘morning-after’ pill?

    The usual type of emergency contraceptive pill (levonorgestrel, otherwise known as Levonelle in the UK) is licenced for use up to three days after sex, and is now known to be effective during the fourth day as well. The newer form – ulipristal, known as EllaOne – is effective up to five days (120 hours) afterwards. (And, as one further option, you can have a copper IUD inserted as emergency contraception at any time up to the nineteenth day after your last period, even if that’s more than five days after you had sex.) Use of the term ‘morning after’ has misled a lot of women who *did* find their local pharmacy closed on a Sunday into thinking they’ve missed their chance to get it, and hence is probably responsible for a lot of pregnancies that could have been avoided.

    Other than that, thanks for this account.

  18. And one bit of advice which you may or may not find helpful (since I’m not remotely claiming to be God, the Queen, or the Dalai Lama – just a GP with a diploma in family planning!):

    After reading and thinking about your situation, I looked up the advice on the Mirena and breast cancer. (I don’t know how much you know about the Mirena. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a form of IUD that contains very small amounts of progestagen, released directly onto the uterine lining, which not only make it an extremely effective contraceptive but also have the tremendously useful side effect of making periods vastly lighter instead of heavier. And, because the progestagen levels are so low and are targeted directly at the uterine lining instead of being passed through the whole of the body in order to get there, general side-effects are rare.)

    There’s not much available, but apparently one study in Finland did find that the Mirena didn’t increase the risk of breast cancer, and the official UK guidelines on safety consider it quite safe for a woman with a family history of breast cancer to take it. So it might be something you could consider.

    I’m wondering whether you’ve been to a family planning clinic to talk to one of the doctors who specialise in contraception? They could give you the most detailed and up-to-date advice on this. If it does turn out the evidence supports this option, it could potentially solve your contraceptive problems and your period problems in one go, all for the price of ten minutes of discomfort while it gets put in. Just thought I’d let you know in case that helps.

    Dr Sarah Vaughan, Wiltshire GP (since I’m supposed to identify myself when giving medical advice)

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