Whipping male hormones into a frenzy

Over 100 million women worldwide take an oral contraceptive pill every day. Although the pill has given women the freedom to take control of their bodies, it has also taken much of the burden of reproductive planning away from men.

While male contraception exists, no option has proven itself to be better than the female birth control pill. Condoms are often less reliable and not as safe, with a failure rate of two per cent with perfect use. Vasectomies, on the other hand, are an invasive surgical procedure – one that many men do not want. The lack of male contraceptive options perpetuate the view that contraception is still a woman’s responsibility. According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, rates of female sterilization and hormonal methods are still higher than condom usage (34 per cent versus 10 per cent of women who use condoms in the U.S.). However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in research to try to develop a male alternative to hormonal birth control.

Though there is currently no male equivalent of the birth control pill, potential methods are being explored. One researcher has developed a pill that interrupts sperm maturation, leading to the production of “nonfunctioning” sperm; another method involves applying a testosterone gel to block sperm production. According to an article published in the New York Times, several of these hormonal methods have, in fact, been effective with a large majority of men. Side effects such as changes in skin, weight, mood, and sex drive have been found, but none of these differ largely from what many women are already dealing with. While none of these methods have been fully developed, the impetus is now there to try to find a method that will work. However, the question still remains: why has it taken so long to begin looking for a male equivalent of the birth control pill?

One of the key issues seems to be the general lack of interest from the public – as well as the pharmaceutical industry – in the development of these options. Although a survey by the International Male Contraception Coalition showed that roughly 40 per cent of American men would be interested in a pill, there are still many who argue that men would be unwilling to take any form of hormonal contraception. Side effects are often stated as a concern – another survey found that 20 per cent of men believed taking a pill would “decrease their masculinity”. This isn’t really surprising, especially when looking at the current state of sexual education. A recent study based on the US National Survey of Family Growth found that female teenagers were far more likely to have received instruction regarding birth control and safer sex methods in high school than their male counterparts. They were also more likely to have discussed these options with their parents and peers. Although the topic of sex and birth control may be discussed with young boys, it is clear there is much more emphasis placed on girls regarding being responsible for one’s actions.

Despite numerous medical advances, many believe there is little chance of a male birth control pill being approved any time soon. It seems that to even begin thinking about such an option, we have to change the way sexual responsibility is approached. There needs to be a shift in the current paradigm of sexual education to teach males to take a more active role in the contraception process. Of course, it’s impossible to predict how a male alternative would be received, but, hopefully, if these issues start being discussed, the development of a male birth control pill will be warmly welcomed.