Ellie Levenson: Allow men to take more responsibility for sex

A man should be able to go to the chemist and pick up the emergency contraception


If I had never had sex while drunk then I expect I would still be a virgin. In fact, I think that I have been drunk, sometimes very drunk, every time I have slept with a new partner, and I suspect this is true for many people. So suggestions that the law will be changed so that women will be considered incapable of consenting if she is drunk, thus making it harder for men accused of rape to claim consent, strike me as being rather odd.

The main problem with this idea is that it seems to start from the assumption that women don't ever want to have sex just because they want to, but that it becomes an attractive option for her only once she is under the influence of alcohol. This kind of attitude denies that women are sexual beings in their own right. It may be, when a drunk woman gives consent to sex, that she is both drunk and consenting. If we accept that women are allowed to drink, and that women are allowed to want sex, then neither of these states should be particularly shocking.

Of course if a woman (or man) is particularly drunk, it would be odd that anyone would actually want to have sex with them. It is customary, as Jude Law's character tells Cameron Diaz's character in the otherwise horrendously bad film The Holiday, for the person you are having sex with to be conscious.

But given that people do have sex when they are drunk, and that drunkenness can often lead to lapses in contraception, what we actually need to be focusing on is how both men and women can take responsibility for their actions after the deed is done, when the alcohol has worn off. Currently, if a man and a woman have unprotected sex, drunken or otherwise, or used contraception that fails such as a condom that splits, the man is suddenly out of the equation as emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill) can be given only to the person who would actually take the medicine, in this case the woman.

This means, for example, that if the woman has commitments the next day and cannot get to a chemist, doctor or family planning clinic, her partner or a male friend cannot get it for her. And, in fact, if a female friend were to try to get it for her they would have to lie and claim it is for their own use.

There is a growing campaign at the moment for women to keep emergency contraception at home just in case they need it. Doctors and family planning clinics can give it out in advance, though few women are aware of this. Pharmacists cannot, however, although there is growing momentum behind the campaign to change this. But it's not good enough for it to be available only to women. If a man is to be responsible it is not just by checking that a consenting woman really is consenting, but by being prepared for all eventualities by having a stock of emergency contraception at home, next to the condoms, in case the latter fail. As things stand, this just isn't possible for men at the moment, however much they may want to do the right thing.

Opponents to giving men access to emergency contraception say this would make them more likely to coerce women into having sex. Dr Cicely Marston, an expert in sex and reproductive medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is dismissive of this argument: "When the pill was introduced, people said that women would be coerced into sex because their boyfriends wouldn't be afraid of pregnancy. We have the same situation now with emergency contraception - preventing men from buying it just in case one of them eventually coerces someone into sex. What about the millions of responsible men who just want to help control their own fertility?"

Not only that, but the coercion argument is demeaning, suggesting that a woman might initially say no to sex, but then change her mind just as soon as he waves contraception (emergency or otherwise) in her face. It might make men feel better to think the only reason we don't want to sleep with them is because we are worried about pregnancy, but we don't consent for a number of reasons, usually regarding whether we find that person attractive.

The fact is that if a woman has had unprotected sex and wants to avoid pregnancy, she needs to take emergency contraception as soon as possible. Just as if she has a headache a man can go to the chemist and buy her some painkillers, he should be able to go to the chemist and pick up the emergency contraception, which is much more effective if taken as soon as possible after the sex took place.

So the debate should not be whether drunk women can give consent. It should be whether once consent is given, both parties are able to take responsibility for the consequences of this. At the moment, society stops men from doing this by not allowing them access to emergency contraception, giving them an excuse not to be involved after the act itself. Yes means yes whether drunk or not, just as no means no at all times. But once both parties have said yes, responsibility for this decision mustn't end prematurely.

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