Another milestone towards equal responsibility when it comes to birth control is right around the corner: 73 years after the first female contraception was introduced, a new US government-funded study has presented promising results for the creation of a male contraceptive pill.
While we’re still in the early stages—and although it does sound like something we’ve heard countless times in the past—the new contraceptive pill for people who produce sperm could be a game-changer, another much-needed male birth control option expanding beyond condoms and vasectomies.
So, will men finally be able to carry some of the weight in terms of birth control in the near future? And if so, will it be widely adopted? SCREENSHOT spoke to both advocates and objectors of the male contraceptive pill to predict the potential outcome of this divisive debate. But first, a bit of context.
If all goes well, the drug would be taken 30 minutes before sex by the individual who produces sperm—appearing to be 100 per cent effective at stopping pregnancies for at least two hours. According to the research recently published in Nature Communications, the compound in the pill blocks an enzyme that mice (as well as human) sperm needs to swim, providing a quick and temporary form of male contraception.
Jochen Buck, the co-author of the paper and pharmacologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, wrote: “Our lab found the on switch that turns sperm on to move… And we’ve now developed a compound which inhibits it.”
The first concept of male contraception was proposed in 1957, so why has it taken the best part of a century to get to this point? One of the key reasons why we don’t have a male contraceptive pill just yet boils down to biology. People with uteruses usually release one egg per month, making the demographic an easy target for contraceptive methods. People who produce sperm, however, can make 1,000 per second.
“Unfortunately, there’s a basic physiological difference, and that is that it’s easy to fool the ovaries with a very low dose of hormones to make [them] think a woman is pregnant, and so the ovaries will stop ovulation,” David Sokal, chair and director of the Male Contraception Initiative told VICE. “However, there’s no similar situation for male sperm production; there’s no normal state where sperm production stops,” he added.
Another reason why male contraception has taken so long to get this far is, drum roll please, money. According to a recent report by Woo, a billion dollars is what is roughly needed to get this pill onto the market. The research has already taken over four years and five million dollars to get to this stage.
Male Contraceptive Initiative is the biggest donor of funding towards non-hormonal birth control research and development in the US, outside of the federal government, however, the bulk of funding is usually provided by the pharmaceutical industry.
Like many medicines in trials, this is where the problem lies, with big pharma often gatekeeping drugs from ever hitting the shelves. Sadly, drugs like this are thought of as an investment: these industries are waiting for the ‘perfect’ male contraception to arrive—one with minimal side effects that is likely to be adopted widely. Until that happens, funding is likely to go towards already existing contraception for people who can get pregnant.
This is where things get complicated. While science has made great breakthroughs in turning this new radical contraceptive into reality, it will only work if men actually take it. So, will they? Well, it’s a mixed bag, for now at least.
According to a study published by the Havard Innovation Labs in partnership with the sex toy manufacturer We-Vibe, 78 per cent of men worldwide would take contraception but “fear side effects.”
As first reported by Glamour, the study interviewed more than 3,500 people across several countries, as well as seven sex experts, concluding that “the majority of men want to share responsibility, and the chances of this actually happening are strong because the increasing demand is boosting research.”
The same study also concluded that 41 per cent of the men interviewed said they “would not tolerate any side effects,” particularly if such a pill could impact libido. This data is backed up by the people we interviewed, with the majority of men expressing that they support the idea of male contraception but are wary of the side effects.
“I’m somewhat sceptical of being the guinea pig when it’s first adopted on mass,” Ethan from London told SCREENSHOT. “I would probably wait at least a year or two just to fully know it’s not got any wrong side effects the trials haven’t found,” he continued.
Sadly, the data above shows that although male contraception could, in theory, be right around the corner, the prospect of it being adopted in mass straight away is less likely. In other words, though science may have pulled the weight so far, significant cultural change is needed too, especially from men.
Interestingly, the study also reported that some women interviewed had a reluctance to let men take the responsibility for contraception, concerned that “their partner might not take contraceptives regularly.”
This is a view echoed repeatedly by the individuals we interviewed. Lucy Wynne, a journalist who covers sexual health, said: “I feel like a male contraceptive is a great idea because it doesn’t require having a woman to take it. But at the same time, there’s always a scare that if men are saying that they’ve taken a pill, but then not taken it, what sort of consequence is going to follow that?”
“That’s a kink as well,” Wynne added, drawing attention to pregnancy fetishism, characterised by the arousal or gratification from the risk of impregnation through unprotected sex. Another interviewee who wished to remain anonymous said that a male contraceptive “would be a good idea in theory” but added that she “100 per cent does not trust men to take it.”
It’s all well and good pioneering a new male contraceptive, but for it to work effectively, and for it to be adopted widely, a significant cultural shift is needed. While male contraceptives may be successful for long-term relationships, for casual sex, it seems people with uteruses still lack trust that their partners will take the pill responsibly.
It’s a complex web to untangle but to bring this new contraception into the mainstream, men must do the heavy lifting to rebuild trust and confidence.
Despite its drawbacks, male contraception feels closer than ever. Not only could this new drug prevent what some describe as a “global epidemic” of unplanned pregnancies, but it could also make contraceptive methods more accessible too. “As someone with Factor V Leiden [a blood clotting condition] who can’t take combined hormone birth control with oestrogen because of the increased risk of blood clots that it causes, it would be amazing if my partner could share the responsibility of birth control,” Mae from Newcastle upon Tyne told us.
“Other than that rare occasion men would lie about it, it’s a good idea,” Wynne concluded. ”It prevents the stress of women having to go on [contraception] and it prevents the stress of men potentially getting a woman pregnant, who also could lie about being on contraception too.”