The possibility of male contraceptives

By Julia Atherley

We’ve come a long way when it comes to contraception. In ancient China, women were told to drink mercury to prevent pregnancy. The Victorians had many theories- from jumping up and down to using homemade diaphragms. All seem to be mainly female focused, suggesting that birth control has traditionally been something only women worried about. This is even more outdated when we consider that society has become less heteronormative. However, the male pill has been in the spotlight recently as a new contraceptive with potential. It is the only real development in male contraception since the condom.

A recent study into male contraceptives was cut short when 20 out of 320 men dropped out due to side effects. Symptoms included depression, muscle pain, ache, and mood swings. Sound familiar? These are just some of the minor side effects listed for the female combined pill. It has been decided that more research needs to be done to combat these side effects before trials can resume. The backlash on social media was huge. Reactions on Facebook and Twitter revolved around these men being ‘unable to handle’ the minor side effects that women have been facing for years on the pill. Does this point towards a larger social issue? Are we all too eager to shift the responsibility and consequence of sexual activity onto women?

The female hormonal pill has been around since 1960 and today 64% of women aged 20 to 24 are taking it (Independent, 2016). It is embedded in our society, and makes up part of a daily routine for many women. Due to its effects on women’s hormones common side effects include depression, weight gain, nausea, headaches, and mood swings. Many women see this as a necessary reaction to the decreased risk of unwanted pregnancy. Although other forms of female contraception are available, the pill is still most popular because of the potentially invasive or ineffective nature of alternatives. It has become part of our lives and a normal thing for women to take. Has the problem of accidental pregnancy remained something only women worry about? The invention of the pill empowered women but also shifted a lot of responsibility over to them. If society is striving for gender equality, shouldn’t we be trying to equalise these pressures?

The advent of male hormonal contraception is a huge step forward. It is an acknowledgement of the need for equality in terms of sexual responsibility. Even so, a lot of research projects fail due to lack of funding. Projects such as the ‘clean sheets pill’, a non-hormonal male contraceptive, are still in their early stages because of investment shortages. Male contraception meets hurdle after hurdle during its development. The most recent study into hormonal contraception reached its efficacy stage, but was stopped due to these unwanted side effects.

It is pertinent to reflect on the difficulties the development of female contraception faced. Even though it was initially exclusively marketed at married women, the pill faced widespread opposition from religious and political groups. Senator McCarthy claimed the pill’s advent was a ‘Bolshevik plot’, aiming to demoralise the Western world. It was shamed as a source of immorality and promiscuity: it was the cause of the degradation of the family, it was unnatural and unwomanly.  Opposition was certainly fierce. Despite the discovery of minor and major side-effects all, the pill was still produced and went on to liberate women, allowing them to take control of their own lives. After fighting so hard for it, are we now not willing to grant the same freedom for men?

We don’t live in a society where pregnancy is simply a woman’s issue. The contraceptive pill should no longer be a woman’s prerogative. If anything, this news story has brought attention to those minor side effects that women have been suffering with for decades. The 20 men unwilling to suffer those side effects were perfectly within their rights to drop out- just because women have been ‘putting up with it’ for years doesn’t mean that we have to. 75% of the trial’s participants said they would be willing to take the contraceptive on a regular basis. The demand for more options within the male birth control market is palpable. The female pill brought about a sexual revolution: what will the male pill bring?

Photograph: grumpy-puddin via Flickr

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