An ad for free “emergency contraception” offered by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is causing quite a stir among feminists. “Would you give up this?” the ad next to a picture of incredibly high heels and a tube of bright red lipstick reads, “for this?” (a pacifier). “You can still get Emergency Contraception up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected sex. And it’s FREE,” the ad explains. Kirstie Jones, who originally shared a photo of the ad on social media, calls it “sexist” — and she’s not alone.
Jones says the ad is sexist because it “implies [mothers] have to give that up those things (sic) in order to have a child.” Others agreed. Career expert Amanda Augustine tweeted, “You can be a #workmom *and* still wear lipstick and heels.” Emily Baker, writing for The Pool, said the ad “perpetuated sexist stereotypes of motherhood” for implying that women can’t be mothers while wearing lipstick and heels. There’s only one problem: this ad is aimed at teenagers.
— Amanda Augustine (@JobSearchAmanda) September 14, 2018
— The Pool (@thepooluk) September 14, 2018
According to Nicola Wenlock, who is the divisional director of midwifery, gynaecology and sexual health for Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, this ad was created to be “relevant, effective and focused” for a teenage audience. This means that those shoes and lipstick don’t represent “#workmoms,” they represent party girls.
While the ad does not mention teenagers directly — and the shoes in the picture look much more like a pair of business heels than something one might wear to a party — we’ll take Wenlock at her word and assume that that was the ad’s intent. In which case, this isn’t about mom fashion choices or “sexist” notions of how mothers should dress. It’s about something much more insidious.
The NHS seems to be telling teenagers not to worry about having unprotected sex because the NHS will provide them with “emergency contraception” for free. That way they will be able to continue their party girl lifestyles — in which they have unprotected sex with random people while wearing lipstick and heels — indefinitely.
The choice of lipstick and heels (rather than text books and sports jerseys, say) implies that a lifestyle of partying hard and engaging in unprotected sex is something worth preserving. Offering the contraceptive as a solution to the difficult conundrum of how to maintain your super fun, fashionable life without giving up your unprotected sex, condones exactly the behavior that teenagers ought to avoid if they don’t want to find themselves pregnant before they’re ready — or be the recipient of some sort of horrible disease.
Surely it’s the unprotected sex that is the problem, not the lack of taking “emergency contraception” once it’s already happened. Offering “emergency contraception” as a way to avoid having to give up partying sends the wrong message. It implies that the partying and the unprotected sex are fine. And, regardless of whether teenagers think unprotected sex is fine, the adults shouldn’t condone it. But, while Wenlock apologized for the “concern” the ad raised, she stood by its effectiveness to “raise awareness of emergency contraception.” The ad may or may not be “sexist,” but it’s certainly misguided. Either way, perhaps the NHS should go back to the drawing board.