It is certainly true that there are sexual health-related issues that affect men more than women. Take as a case study the universally unhelpful ‘tough’ masculine image presented in My Left Nut, a series soon to arrive on BBC iPlayer based on Michael Patrick’s own experience of not going to the doctor about the lump on his testicle for three years. Fortunately, that story has a happy ending, and he has acknowledged that the original stage play that the series is adapted from has encouraged more men to go to the doctor about similar ailments. 

Men aren’t even encouraged to take preventative measures against cancer in the same way that women are. There is no equivalent to our breast and cervical smear tests readily available or advertised to men. And, while it is one of the many, many indignities that women would rather not have to suffer, prevention is better than cure. The same story is true for sexual assault – men aren’t encouraged to come forward even as much as the small amount that women are, and may not even be taken seriously by the same staff who would believe a woman in the same situation. 

However, this article is not about men’s health. Within healthcare in the UK there is currently a silent epidemic that is causing women humiliation, inconvenience, and worse. 

A current symptom of this epidemic is one that has been reported on BBC News, but has received no fanfare, despite its significance to nearly every woman in the UK. There is a shortage of female contraceptives, to the extent where in some areas it is not possible for pharmacists to give women the medications listed on their prescriptions. If there were a sudden and widespread shortage of Viagra, it would be a different story. 

It is also ridiculous that BBC News concluded that there will be more pregnancies and abortions as a result of this female contraceptive shortage. As though any woman in the UK who has any say in the matter would risk pregnancy because she is unable to get access to the contraception that she knows and relies upon.

I have fortunately not been badly affected by the pill shortage but that doesn’t mean that I have been treated well when it did come to affect me. I was issued my repeat prescription in person, by a nurse, who had the option of swapping my pill for a cheaper equivalent, which I asked her not to do – after all, if we’re happy with what we’re taking and it’s not doing anything terrible to us, why would we change it? When I collected my prescription it was the alternative pill as opposed to my usual one. A phone call to the pharmacy was unhelpful, as the pharmacist told me that that was the pill that had been on the prescription and that was that. Fortunately, I was able to call the GP and have the receptionist make absolutely, triply certain with a nurse that the only difference between the cheaper pill and my usual pill is the packaging. How could all of these medical staff have averted causing their patient unnecessary frustration and worry, if her usual pill was unavailable but the alternative is identical in every way except the box that it comes in? The nurse who provided the prescription should have told me during the appointment. Simple. 

That’s not the first time that I’ve been given grief when I’ve just tried to get the pill that I’ve been taking for almost ten years, which is an indication that the current shortage of female contraception is a symptom of a wider epidemic in our healthcare system – one that, amongst other issues, does not take female contraception seriously. One time, I had to explain my understanding of how the pill worked to the nurse prescribing it, because she had no idea.

What’s more appalling is that, as I’ve said, I’ve been taking this particular pill for almost ten years, and precisely how the pill works, including details that if you don’t know you could get pregnant, has only just been explained to me. And the nurse who finally explained those details to me, incidentally the same one who failed to tell me that she had prescribed a different pill, made it plain that it was my fault that these things had never been explained to me before. 

I can only be grateful that the potential side effects of the pill were explained to me when I started taking it, and that if you’re a woman getting prescribed contraceptives then you have to see a nurse to be checked for those side effects once a year. Personally, so far, I haven’t experienced any side effects so, even though it is possible that I have got an increased risk of having a stroke or mental health issues like depression. At least from what I have experienced, any detrimental effect on my health would be noticed quickly. Because of the security that I feel with the monitoring of the side effects, for now I’m happy to keep taking the pill rather than use a different method of contraception.

The side effects of the pill also lead into the greater issue of how female sexual health is treated as a non-concern, which we’re not even expected to talk about publicly, never mind actually take care of. However, when it comes to partners – particularly heterosexual partners – having intercourse, all of the contraceptive onus is on the woman. There was a glimmer of hope that that was changing recently, when a male contraceptive pill was being trialled. However, that glimmer has currently been dashed while the male contraceptive pill is left at the trial stage because of the side effects that men were experiencing – because nausea and mood swings, things which many women experience on a monthly basis anyway, in men are apparently comparable to an increased risk of stroke in women.  

Menopausal women are treated with the same callousness as those of us who are still able to make babies. The side effects of hormone replacement therapy aren’t explained to them, and the hormones’ continued use is encouraged even when those side effects cause significant pain, embarrassment, and therefore a significant decline in mental health; and male doctors come up with such helpful questions after failed treatment as ‘when are you going to try again?’. 

So, I’ve established that women’s physical and mental health is not treated with due respect medically. But what of our physical wellbeing and safety? 

Recently, in the West Country, a teenager was stabbed to death in her home by her ex-boyfriend. While he has been imprisoned, the proposed solution falls short of dealing with the root cause of the issue. That proposed solution is that self-defence classes are made compulsory in schools. Self-defence classes are indeed useful, but they are not the solution. Once again, the onus has been placed on the side of the victim to prevent the worst from happening. There has been no mention of teaching students that domestic and sexual violence are unacceptable.

This is not the only shortcoming in our education and in our daily lives that is symptomatic of the epidemic in women’s health. Schools try to teach us – at least mine did – about the whole range of contraceptive and menstrual products that are available, but they neglect to explain to us female students that dignity and practicality during our periods is a luxury, whereas condoms are available for free from clinics even though they’re not an everyday necessity for men. Based on the sexist logic behind that, it’s a miracle that we can get the pill free on prescription, at least for the moment. 

It is clear, then, that at least in women’s sexual health and in their safety, there is an epidemic. While it has been the aim of this article to highlight this, I will leave you with another worrying thought. The gender imbalance in healthcare is much more widespread than sex and relationships. Consider, as an example, that autistic women are going undiagnosed because there are still some people in the medical profession who insist contrary-to-fact that autism is something that only men can have, and that women instead are a mere mess of many, extremely dangerous psychological conditions. 

Chloé Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.