We’ve been talking a lot of about contraceptive and reproduction this week, and mostly focusing on female birth control. But the truth is, male birth control isn’t that far behind…and men want it. So why the long wait for a medication that is both in demand, and scientifically plausible? Guest writer Hunter Motto–a confirmed heterosexual male–attempts to parse it out.
Birth control for men has been at the top of the “blogroll in my mind” for weeks after reading two recent scientific headlines. In February of 2012, sources reported that the University of Kansas School of Medicine, which has been researching new forms of heterosexual male contraception for the last 10 years, had finally made progress towards a 100% effective and 100% reversible option. How long it will take researchers to complete clinical trials and testing is not clear (maybe 5-10+ years, depending on who you ask), but it does put male birth control on the horizon.
This flurry of news and sarcastic wit, followed Wired magazine’s coverage in last April, has put of RISUG, a chemical compound that is injected into the vas deferens and has been shown in studies to be 100% effective, 100% reversible, inexpensive, non-hormonal, non-invasive, and can last 10-15 years (!!) in the minds of many men. In March 2006, the drug began Phase III clinical trials in India and has since been patented in India, China, Bangladesh, and the United States. But in a complicated cocktail of politics and funding troubles, research was delayed–and it now seems to be back on track, though again on a 5-10+ year course.
So why the tease, male birth control? Seriously, why has it taken so long for Americans to develop such a seemingly important domestic product? The clinical answer is that shutting a man’s reproductive system down is a little more complicated than a woman’s–a disputed claim that is fueled by the logic that women produce one egg each month, while men can produce over 1000 sperm per second. From the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (2000):
The lack of progress in developing affordable, safe, effective, and reversible male contraceptives is due not to the biological complexity involved in suppressing spermatogenesis, but rather to social and economic/commercial constraints. During the past decade, reasonably safe and effective methods for reversibly suppressing spermatogenesis have been developed. Most are hormonally based, but some
immunocontraceptives are now in clinical trials.
However, making these new contraceptives widely available on the market will require collaborative efforts that bring together the full spectrum of biological, epidemiological, and biobehavioral research and their political interfaces with the public. In the end, all of
these factors must be addressed to help resolve sociocultural impediments to using these techniques as well as industry fears of litigation should they choose to market these novel products.
The cynical answer, then, is that there is a remarkable amount of fear tied to male fertility and sex in general. This fear manifests itself in America threefold:
1) Drug companies are not interested in a one-stop solution like RISUG or other forms of long-use birth control. It comes down to simple economics: repeat customers are good for business. Developers also face staggering financial and legal risk to bring new medical products to market. Really, what legal troubles could one of the largest industries in the U.S. be afraid of?
2) Despite what internet trolls, talking heads, and the crazy person next door might have you believe, male birth control is not so widely polarizing. Though they may find ways conflate religion and politics to create the appearance of widely dissenting opinions, this is a medical and domestic advance that sexually active straight men really want. That, friends, is the art of fear-mongering.
3) As men, we take for granted our sexuality and privilege and—whether we want to admit it or not—anything that challenges our rather comfortable gender role makes us nervous.
Why would we ever want to change the status quo? I can admit that it is nice to not have to commit the time and energy into being the bearer of safe sex. We, as hetero males, just don’t have to worry about it in the same way that females do. Ultimately, an undue burden lies on women because men are not going to get pregnant. We can mentally check out and say—tell me if you’ve heard this before—“it’s your body and I can’t make that decision for you.” This is not to say that all men think or act like this, but it’s kind of like crashing your friend’s car. At the end of the day, if you were a bad friend, you could get out with nothing more than a “sorry, bro.”
But I’m going let you in on a little secret. These new forms of male contraception seem pretty awesome. The beauty of male birth control is:
1) It allows men to more fully participate in the conversation. Male contraception promotes discussion of safe sex and family planning on all sides of gender. While negative stereotypes discount males in this way, many men want to and do partake in contraception discourse because they are in a loving relationship or are “responsible human beings.” It may be asking too much, but maybe male birth control will change the paradigm of how our society views baby-making decisions and responsibilities. Why don’t we take this opportunity to get ourselves further out of the dark ages—where the responsibility of child-rearing was entirely and fundamentally on women?
2) Men still have it easy. Call it gender inequality or the George Lucas effect (benefitting years and years later from advances in technology), but birth control developed for men today will likely be safer, healthier, more effective, and easier to produce than what’s available on the market for our female counterparts. Yes, a man’s current options suck. Vasectomies are not easily reversible or intended to be and condoms break, go bad, are poorly used, and still, somehow, demonized.
But even so, one in six married couples in the United States rely on vasectomy for contraception. New developments will compensate for these major disadvantages and in some forms, will allow men to do what we all want to do deep down inside: forget about our contraception altogether.
4) Whether you are a bachelor, in a roughly-defined relationship, or have been married for 15 years, birth control offers peace of mind. I, like so many others trying to eke out a career in recessed America, cannot afford a child. Having that reassurance is wonderful, but also having the option to have a child later when it makes sense and I can afford it, well that must be science.
3) There is incredible potential for male birth control to affect change on the psychology of being a man in American today. As tough, hard, and uncompromising as the media makes heterosexual men out to be, we are highly self-conscious beings. How good/bad we are in bed, our attractiveness, our penis size, our sexual preferences, and at some primordial level, our ability to bear and raise multitudes of beautiful, healthy children (whether we choose to or not) is tied to our identity. So it should come as no surprise that the idea of taking a daily pill or having a doctor inject chemicals into my genitals feels frightening and emasculating. But instead of looking at how scary and invasive male birth control can be on our broad, collective sense of masculinity, we can examine how it improves our relationships and sense of purpose. Plus, women subject themselves to contraceptives with far more questionable applications and side-effects all the time and frankly, I don’t hear a lot of complaints from them about it.
5) Male birth control is not really for American men at all (surprise!). Americans can develop it and make it cool, but when we take a step back, it is pretty easy to see that it is not our biggest national concern. It’s by no means in comparison to the challenges in India or China. In the long term, male birth control is going to most benefit countries that are desperately trying to deal with national overpopulation and all of its repercussions.
Are you satisfied? No? Well, then, ask what you’ve been dying to ask all along: “Would he (whoever your ‘he’ may be) take the pill?” Go ahead, ask him, and if after all this reading he says no, dump him.
Hunter Motto is a concert promoter in Seattle and Bellingham, WA who studied writing in college and writes on occasion.
Image: Valeriy Lebedev via Shutterstock