Talking about contraception at home or during sex education at school might seem awkward. In reality, a conversation about contraception is necessary and normal before starting uni. So many students start using birth control or change to a different method once they leave home that it shouldn’t be taboo. I spoke with four students to discuss how they navigated the change. Hopefully, the contraception chats below dispel any myths or mysteries surrounding the topic, and make you feel a bit better about any decisions you might need to make at university!
Ella: awkwardness and the pressure to lose your virginity
Ella was not sexually active before the end of her first year at uni, when she started seeing her long-term boyfriend. Since then, she’s been trying to find a contraceptive pill that works for her.
“I didn’t want to put hormones in my body until I absolutely had to,” she explained. “Even when I first started having sex, I only used condoms, because I only wanted to take the pill if I had a serious boyfriend, and then I know they’re safe as well STI-wise.”
We discussed the embarrassment surrounding contraception at a younger age. “I didn’t feel prepared by sex education at school, because I didn’t even know how to put a condom on, honestly,” Ella said. “We had sex ed when we were in Year 10 or 11 and they would only make the first row put a condom on the banana, so no one wanted to sit there because they were too embarrassed. I’d never actually put one on and even my boyfriend at the time asked if it was the right way round. I literally couldn’t tell.”
Once deciding to start a contraceptive pill, Ella went to the university health centre. She was prescribed a progesterone-only pill very easily, but was still too embarrassed to talk to her mum about her choice. “My mum only found out because I was having a problem with my first pill on holiday,” she explained, reflecting on her awkwardness. “I spoke more to my sisters, but my family are quite prude, my dad especially, he’s very Christian, and I could never talk to him about sex.”
Chatting about this stigma, I asked Ella when she found contraception less embarrassing to talk about. “I do think once I’d had sex. Because especially if you are a virgin coming to uni – it’s obviously not a big deal, now I can see that – but you do feel that pressure to lose your virginity, especially because a lot of people have already. I felt insecure, so maybe that’s why I didn’t want to talk about it as much.”
If Ella was giving advice to herself as a fresher starting uni, she would say: Don’t put pressure on yourself to lose your virginity. “Just do things at your own pace,” Ella said, “I just worry that people have sex with a random person and regret it.” Ella is still searching for contraception that works for her, because she’s reacted badly to the pills she’s tried. Read Reyah’s advice about contraceptive pills, or visit your doctors for more information.
Laura: a sports club’s culture and the pressure to be on the pill
By contrast, Laura has tried several different types of contraception. She took the pill for about two years before coming to uni, then changed to the implant for another two years. “My experience at the health centre with the nurse that I saw has been great – obviously that’s not going to be true for everyone – but that played a big role in my contraception journey.”
When arranging her implant removal, the medical centre suggested Laura try the patch. “My only understanding of the patch before that was Rebecca Gormley from Love Island. Everyone wondered what was on her arse, and it turns out that it was the patch.” Laura didn’t want contraception that she needed to take daily, like the pill, so the patch offered the perfect alternative. You change the patch once a week, and following three patches, you have a patch-free week. “I’ve been absolutely loving that, it’s been my favourite one so far,” Laura explained. “It’s really helped regulate periods, and I’ve had 0 problems with that one at all.”
At school, Laura was never informed of these options. “I went to your average school, and I would honestly describe my sex education as being shown the film Juno on PSHE day,” Laura remembers. “That was kind of the extent of it. Don’t get pregnant, and there’s something called a condom. I don’t think they ever spoke about contraception options again, because they didn’t ever do anything one-on-one with the girls, and I think they maybe don’t view it as a boys’ problem.”
Like Ella, Laura hid her contraception from her parents. “I remember when I first went on contraception, I snuck to the doctors myself. It was within walking distance from my house, I went there, I sorted it out, I was well informed, I got the pill secretly.” When a couple of months later Laura’s mum asked if she wanted to go on any contraception, she can’t remember if she confessed or lied that she didn’t need it. “I get so awkward about the topic of sex around my mum, which is a me-problem. My mum has always been very open and very cool about it, I just internally cringe.”
In addition to this embarrassment at home, Laura revealed the enormous pressure she felt from her sports club to be sexually active. “Half the things I did as a member, I never ever would have done if I wasn’t desperate to be liked. It’s all because that was the club culture, and I was told that’s what I should do to be one of the cool, relevant members,” Laura reflects. “If I wasn’t a member, I don’t think I would have felt any pressure to be sexually active at uni whatsoever.”
Laura described how she grew out of this impressionability. “In previous years, I wanted to be funny, and I wanted everyone to know about everything, then I finally got to a point where I felt more secure in myself. I just started doing what I wanted to do. I felt like I could finally be myself, rather than this heightened version of what I thought I needed to be because of the sexual pressure,” Laura discussed. “I wouldn’t say don’t be part of a sports club, because it’s the best experience I’ve had at uni, and it’s helped me make so many lifelong friends, but I wish I’d been my own person.”
Alongside this pressure to be sexually active in sports, Laura almost consistently experienced pressure from partners to be on the pill, or another kind of contraception. Most of Laura’s partners either assumed she was protected, or didn’t ask, “Only one of the guys I’ve been with at uni has been like, let’s put a condom on. None of them are forthcoming with that at all.” Laura always had the responsibility to take contraception, “Every single one of my sexual experiences at uni bar one, I would have ended up getting pregnant or getting the morning after pill, if I hadn’t been on contraception.”
Although she never experienced direct pressure from partners, Laura was indirectly pressured into taking her own contraception, as the other person would never take responsibility. “I’ve been on contraception consistently since I was 17, I tried to go without it for one month, and I still couldn’t manage it, because these guys just don’t put condoms on. It’s ridiculous, and I think it results in a lot of indirect pressure.”
Advice for fresher Laura? “Stand up for yourself more,” Laura answered immediately. “I wish that in certain situations where the guy has decided not to put a condom on, I actually used my words and said no.” She added, “My other really big thing would be, listen to your body. If the contraception you’re on isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to go back.” And finally, she advised, “This is so much easier said than done, but don’t give into sexual pressures, particularly if you’re in a sports club.”
Cameron: the confidence to buy and use condoms
As a male student coming to uni, Cameron felt moderately prepared by sex education at school. “There’s a couple things that they don’t mention like if you’re going to be out wherever, keeping condoms in your pockets or your wallet is actually a bad idea because it wears them down. So certainly a few gaps. But, on the whole, I think it was okay, I certainly wasn’t underprepared.”
Nonetheless, we discussed how a certain awkwardness around contraception still exists for new university students. At Cameron’s uni, condoms are very readily available, and students are often encouraged to take them. Cameron thought this accessibility helps remove the embarrassment slightly, “I think if they’re giving condoms away that freely, I guess for anybody who is paranoid or worried, that might take the edge off a bit. They’re giving them out like candies, so they can’t be that weird.”
“There is a sort of notorious nerves thing,” Cameron discussed buying condoms, “You know, TV and film show it all the time, but it is definitely real for a lot of people – when you go into a shop, and I feel like have to like buy contraception and hide it under all the stuff you’ve bought.” As well as the availability of condoms on campus, Cameron did wish we could get rid of this taboo. “I guess it’s a weird thing to be stigmatised. No, condoms are a good thing. This is a good thing. Go for it.”
I asked if Cameron ever discussed contraception among his male friends, “It doesn’t happen that frequently. But I feel like that’s probably because for guys, we only have one option, so it’s not a great deal to actually discuss.” Cameron considered using condoms as the easiest form of contraception, protecting against pregnancy and STIs. He would never expect a partner to take responsibility for being safe, “I feel like there should be no pressure at all to take anything that chemically alters your body in any way, full stop.” Returning to condoms, he said, “Again, they’re a simple form of contraception. They don’t chemically alter anybody, so I feel like that’s perfectly reasonable for both sides to use.”
Belle: safe sex in queer relationships
While the definition of contraception refers to methods which prevent pregnancy, staying safe during sex includes protection from STIs as well. Belle explained to me how her sex education at school completely excluded LGBTQ relationships. “I felt very unprepared,” she described, “Only because school didn’t actually provide me with queer sex education. So for example, there are a lot of ways to stay safe as a queer person that they just didn’t teach.”
Belle did not find her university medical centre informative or helpful. “It’s always the first question whenever it comes to contraceptives, in particular, are you sexually active? Yes. Is there any chance you could be pregnant? No.” Similarly, Belle finds safe sex difficult to discuss with her parents, “My mom thinks I haven’t had sex just because I haven’t had heterosexual sex. She doesn’t consider the sex that I have to be real sex.” Instead, Belle found support among other members of the LGBTQ community, “I’ve been in queer spaces for a long time. We’re all very open about experiences, open about teaching each other how to have safer sex.”
Through these discussions, Belle heard so many different experiences on the topic of contraception. “I also have a lot of perspectives, for example, reasons for taking the pill,” she explained, “I don’t take it for birth control. I take it for managing a medical condition. I know that for my friends who are trans guys, they also take it to stop periods, which will trigger dysphoria. I also know people who are on it for birth control, for acne or something like that. So yeah, I think it’s kind of annoying that there’s this whole discourse surrounding contraception that you only take it if you’re trying not to get pregnant, and not for other reasons.”
Since the majority of Belle’s sexual partners had been women, she hadn’t felt pressure to take contraception. “I haven’t had that pressure, but pressure from my mother, maybe!” Belle joked, “I was given condoms by my mother. I was just like, I don’t know what to do with these. They still live in my drawer. I have not touched them. Not once in the three years I’ve been at uni.”
Nobody’s experience at university is the same, and your choice of contraception is exactly that, yours. Do not feel pressure to be sexually active at uni. Do not feel pressure from a partner to take hormonal contraception. Do not feel awkward about buying condoms. And do not feel excluded from the discussion if you are queer. Do start a conversation with your friends, your GP, or whoever you feel comfortable speaking to. Contraception should not be a taboo, so let’s start talking about it.