I have used emergency contraception with six women. The reasons were typical: condom failure, improper use of a condom, unprotected sex. Before going to the pharmacy, we had the standard “What should we do?” conversation about our options.
In many ways, these conversations were a performance. I already knew what I wanted, but since I wouldn’t be the one taking the pill, each conversation was about finding out if having it my way would come easily. If we were on the same page, there wouldn’t be much to talk about and we would go through the motions of “exploring” our options until we landed on the obvious one. If she was hesitant, I’d try to nudge her toward emergency contraception to calm my fears of an unwanted pregnancy.
On the occasions I joined my partners at the pharmacy, I stood in the background when they lowered their voice to ask for Plan B. I offered to pay. I tried to balance doing the right thing with mitigating the discomforts of the situation. And then, when the questions began, I stepped away.
I stepped away under the guise of offering privacy, but really I wanted to avoid the questions. I hate the questions.
Why do you need emergency contraception? What are your usual means of contraception? How many hours has it been since you last had unprotected sex?
No matter how professional a clinician is, or how measured their voice, personal medical questions feel like judgment, and demand impromptu self-reflection. They force you to not only face those uncomfortable questions, but also to share your answers with someone pretending to be nonjudgmental and impartial, despite being a human who is judging your situation and is partial to its circumstances.
“I don’t think I want to take Plan B again,” a woman once texted me the second time we were considering emergency contraception. “It made me feel gross for weeks after.”
“How was it compared to nine months?” I replied.
“I hate this. It’s not just the feeling-gross part—it’s that you’re deteriorating your uterus too. Do I want to do that again?”
“Where did you read that?” I asked. “It’s a concentrated dose of the same hormones someone would use for birth control. There aren’t any safety concerns or health risks.”
“Oh nbd [no big deal]! Curious, when was the last time you took a concentrated dose of hormones?”
I’m embarrassed by this conversation and others like it. I wanted someone else to take action without me having to suffer any consequences. I wanted reassurance without having to do anything to earn it. I told myself that I would take the pill personally if I could. But for me, the experience ended with the decision to take action. In most cases, I simply received a text message the next day saying that it was taken care of.
These scenarios remind me of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a 2020 movie you can currently stream on Amazon Prime. The film is about a young girl, Autumn, traveling to New York for an abortion, and the days that chip away at her as she tries to access health care. The film never reveals Autumn’s partner or the circumstances of her pregnancy. It focuses instead on Autumn learning about her pregnancy from an anti-abortion pregnancy center and then navigating travel, finances, and bureaucracy.
Autumn is joined by her cousin, Skylar, who is 17 years old like Autumn and navigates the advances of Jasper, a man who walks the line between predatory and conveniently aloof. Jasper is older, knows the city, and has money to spend and a place to stay. He controls the power dynamic between him and Skyler without actively abusing it, but his passive exploitation lives beneath the surface of their interactions.
When Autumn finally arrives at Planned Parenthood after several days of turmoil, it’s the intake questions that cause her to crumble. It’s the most emotionally devastating scene of the movie, one that everyone should watch, even if you don’t watch the entire film.
“Whatever your decision is, it’s totally fine as long as it’s yours,” says a soft-spoken clinician. “Is there anyone who’s pressuring you to be here today to terminate this pregnancy?” After confirming that Autumn is sure about her decision to have an abortion, the clinician talks Autumn through the process and begins the questionnaire.
There were the standard questions (Do you take any medication or use any drugs on a regular basis? Have you taken any medication or used any drugs of any kind today? Have you ever had any medical problems before, like anemia, asthma, or high blood pressure? Are you allergic to any medication? Do you have any allergies to latex or shellfish? Have you ever had surgery before?)
There were the subjective questions (Do you have a healthy diet? Do you exercise regularly? Any recent life changes or stresses? Are there any health hazards at home?).
Then the invasive questions (At what age did you first have sex? What types of sexual activity have you had—vaginal, anal, oral? How many sexual partners do you currently have? How many partners have you had in the last 12 months? How many partners have you had in your lifetime?).
Then the clinician begins the never, rarely, sometimes, always questions after which the film is named—these are the standard questions asked by an abortion provider prior to the procedure and when Autumn loses whatever composure she had left.
“They can be really personal,” the clinician says of the questions. “And all you have to do is answer either ‘never,’ ‘rarely,’ ‘sometimes,’ or ‘always.’ It’s kind of like multiple choice, but it’s not a test.”
In the past year, your partner has refused to wear a condom: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Your partner messes with your birth control or tries to get you pregnant when you don’t want to be: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Your partner has threatened or frightened you: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
“Why are you asking me this?” Autumn asks.
“I want to make sure that you’re safe,” the clinician says, and repeats the question.
Your partner has threatened or frightened you: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Your partner has hit you, slapped you, or physically hurt you: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Autumn had been losing confidence in her answers, some of them reduced to an “mm-hmm” or a nod. By this point, Autumn stops answering at all.
Has your partner ever hit you, slapped you, or physically hurt you?
Is someone hurting you?
Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to: never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Has anyone forced you into a sexual act ever in your lifetime? Do you want to tell me about it?
The scene is a tearjerker, and I was virtually begging it to end. It also forced me to think about the fact that I’ve never had to know what it’s like to face questions like these. I only stood to benefit from those who did. Every time I was faced with the “What should we do?” conversation, I hoped that if it came down to it, my partner would take emergency contraception or have an abortion. But if men like me benefit from someone else answering these questions, then we should be able to answer them—even if only to ourselves. The standard abortion questionnaire is an opportunity for reflection from the people who need it most.
Have you ever refused to wear a condom? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Have you ever messed with your partner’s birth control or tried to get them pregnant when they didn’t want to be? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Have you ever threatened or frightened your partner? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Have you ever hit, slapped, or physically harmed your partner? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Have you made your partner have sex when they didn’t want to? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Have you forced anyone into a sexual act ever in your lifetime? Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
Do you want to tell me about it? Do you want to tell anyone about it? Will you even think about it?
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s Humans Being about mysteries and conspiracy theories. Most responses included the kind of personal anecdotes that I won’t share here, but one of my favorite responses came from Brooklyn, who talked about her religious upbringing in a conspiracy-minded environment and wrote, “To give an example of my parents’ extremism: we were not allowed to call deviled eggs by their name because we weren’t allowed to say the word ‘devil.’ lol We had to call them ‘angel eggs.’”
I can definitely relate, Brooklyn! I was meant to avoid anything vaguely evocative of Satanism or the occult. Writing those chapters about my fear of demons in my book were pretty cathartic, though painful. (For new readers, that book is Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture. I hope you read it.)
This week’s book giveaway is a hardcover of Want, by Lynn Steger Strong. It’s about a woman with two kids, two jobs, a husband, and a PhD grappling with motherhood, economic anxiety, and exhaustion. Just send me an email telling me your least favorite routine medical question, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.