Many young women do not have a basic understanding of emergency contraception and feel embarrassed to ask for it.
In a survey of more than 2,000 sexually active women across the UK*, 42% of 16-24-year-olds said they’d had unprotected sex in the last two years when not planning a pregnancy. Of these 70% said they did not use emergency contraception afterwards.
Sexual health charity FPA released the findings as part of Sexual Health Week and called for better education to help young women avoid unplanned pregnancies.
FPA’s Director of Health and Wellbeing, Natika Halil, said:
“The results of our survey are really worrying and an enormous amount of work needs to be done to ensure young women, and young men alike, are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to enjoy relationships safely.
“Our research showed that only 37% of women aged 16 to 24 had learnt about emergency contraception at school or college. This was higher than older age groups, showing we are starting to move in the right direction, but this figure is still woefully low.
"As the majority of young people become sexually active around the age of 16, it is irresponsible not to help prepare them for inevitable situations, like a condom splitting, or what happens if you forget to take a pill, if they are not ready to become parents.”
To mark Sexual Health Week, FPA has sent more than 3,000 campaign packs to clinicians, doctors and pharmacists around the UK, packed with tips to help them make conversations about contraception less embarrassing, and ensure young women know their options.
Ms Halil added: “There are so many contraception myths, half-truths and misconceptions. Through our survey we heard almost one-quarter (24%) of 16-24-year-old women think repeat use of emergency contraception can make you infertile, almost half thought it was like an abortion and just under one-third (30%) thought under-16s need permission to get emergency contraception. None of these are true, but believing them could stop young women from accessing the help they need, when they need it.
“It’s also really important for young women to think about whether there is a regular method of contraception that might be more suitable for them going forward. 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.”
One young woman told FPA:
"I was 17, didn't drive and lived in the middle of nowhere. I struggled to find somewhere open and available at that time and found it very difficult to get there - which added to the stress of an already stressful situation. But once I reached a pharmacy two minutes before closing time, the pharmacist was incredibly understanding and thorough - he stayed past closing time to take a full history and give me the medication. I was very relieved and my experience of taking the tablet was fine; much better than others I'd heard of because I was a bit anxious about side effects."
Notes for editors
Key findings for 16-24-year-olds:
- More than half (52%) thought asking for emergency contraception can be embarrassing and said there is still a stigma around it.
- 46% did not know where they could get emergency contraception if they need it.
- 59% believed emergency contraception had to be used within 24 hours to be effective, or weren’t sure.
- Just 14% thought health professionals provide enough information on the different methods of emergency contraception that are available.
- 47% wrongly thought using emergency contraception was like an abortion, or weren’t sure.
- One-third (33%) said they would like to keep a supply of emergency contraception at home. But only 3% had actually bought pills or got a prescription to have them at home just in case.
- Just less than one-third (30%) thought you need a prescription to get any kind of emergency contraception.
- Less than one-quarter (24%) said they ‘know a lot’ about emergency contraception.
- The methods which most women said they had a good understanding of were the male condom (80%), combined pill (71%) and implant (52%). Least understood were the vaginal ring, IUS and patch.
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+).