12th September, 2014

More than one-quarter (29%) of sexually active women aged 16 to 54* have had unprotected sex in the last two years and not used emergency contraception, despite saying they were not planning a pregnancy.

The UK’s leading sexual health charity FPA released the findings to mark the beginning of its annual Sexual Health Week, and is calling for better education to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies.

sexual health week poster 1The charity’s survey of more than 2,000 women across the UK found some shocking results around women’s knowledge of contraception, which health experts warned act as barriers to getting the right information, advice and treatment they need, at the time they need it.

Key findings:

  • More than one-third (39%) of women aged 16 to 54 thought asking for emergency contraception can be embarrassing and said there is still a stigma around it. This was particularly felt among 16-24-year-olds (52%).
  • One-half of women wrongly thought that using emergency contraception effectively causes an abortion, or weren’t sure.
  • 43% of women said they would not know where to get emergency contraception if they needed it.
  • Only one in six women (16%) said they thought health professionals provide enough information on the different methods of emergency contraception that are available.
  • Just 17% of women learnt about emergency contraception at school or college.

FPA’s Director of Health and Wellbeing Natika Halil said:

“We know there are lots of reasons women may choose not to use emergency contraception when they aren’t planning a pregnancy – including that they are happy to leave it to chance.

“However, our research has shown many barriers exist for women – including a lack of knowledge of what emergency contraception is, how it works and where you can get it. There are also endless myths and misconceptions which are banded about, which leave many women with a real sense of confusion and worry.


“These often include a misplaced belief that you can’t get pregnant because of where you are in your menstrual cycle or because of your age. Worryingly many women are also told that using emergency contraception is the same as an abortion. This is completely wrong – emergency contraception can prevent a pregnancy, whereas an abortion is to end a pregnancy.

“Sexual Health Week this year is all about dispelling those myths and reminding women that using emergency contraception is a responsible choice, which shouldn’t leave you feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

“It’s also really important to think about whether there is a regular method of contraception that might be more suitable for you. For example if you know you sometimes forget to take your pill, there are long-acting methods you can use which remove the need to remember to do something every day.”

sexual health week poster 2Over the course of Sexual Health Week, FPA is sending out more than 3,000 campaign packs to clinicians, doctors and pharmacists around the UK, packed with tips to help them make women getting emergency contraception and discussing their wider contraceptive needs feel more comfortable, and to ensure they understand their options.

The facts

  • There are three methods of emergency contraception and they can be used up to varying time limits after unprotected sex. Unprotected sex doesn’t just mean you haven’t used any contraception at all – sometimes methods can fail, for example a condom splitting.
  • The two emergency hormonal pills that are available are Levonelle, which can be taken up to three days after unprotected sex, and ellaOne, which can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex.
  • A third option, which is very reliable, is the emergency IUD, sometimes called the coil, which can be fitted up to five days after unprotected sex and can then be left to act as a regular method of contraception for five to 10 years, depending on the type. It can be removed at any time, and does not affect your fertility.
  • There are 15 methods of contraception, including 13 for women. These include four methods known as long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) because once used they can be effective for between eight weeks and 10 years. You can find out about the different methods and which might be most suitable by using My Contraception Tool.

- ENDS -

Notes to editor:

View the full survey results here (PDF, opens in new window).

High-res jpegs of our campaign posters are available on request.

Please refrain from using the phrase “morning after pill” in articles. It is a misleading term, as none of the methods of emergency contraception available have to be used “the morning after”, or within 24 hours to be effective, and there are three methods – only two of which are pills. We believe this wrongly sends a message to women that if they don’t get emergency contraception very quickly then there is no point getting it at all.

*Survey of 2,509 UK women aged 16 to 54, of which 2,131 have ever been sexually active. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22 and 25 July 2014. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Sexual health