Why is contraception the burden of women? Male contraception would seem to be a much easier way of having sex for fun and not sticking a woman with the baby, but it’s rarely been on the minds of scientists in the past. That may be about to change, especially with the recent success of Vasalgel in a clinical trial. But why did it take so long, and why is it going so slowly?
Currently contraception takes three forms when it comes to men: Withdrawal, vascetomy, or condoms. Pulling out requires experience and control, making it less than ideal for an act all about losing control. Vasectomy works, but is, well, a rather permanent solution most people don’t want to resort to. And condoms generally work, and have the bonus of helping prevent STIs.
That said, contraceptive options for women tend to be riskier, healthwise. Hormonal birth control may, depending on your genetics, increase your risk of stroke, and other side effects of the pill, especially the psychological ones, had been downplayed or even covered up for years or decades. Tubal ligation is more dangerous than vasectomy, albeit only by a small margin, and also a permanent solution where one may not be wanted. And IUDs have rare, but potentially serious, risks. Simply put, biology makes it much easier for men to use contraceptives, but historically, it’s been the woman’s job.
The main issue is that where women produce one cell a month, men crank out literally over a thousand sperm per second. That makes male birth control inherently more hit-or-miss since, despite making millions of them, you only need one to get pregnant. And, it has to be said, there’s also the social aspect: Men don’t get pregnant, and it’s easier to simply stick the woman with the responsibility and walk away. The history of birth control is littered with ugly incidents where sex without babies was seen as more important than women’s health.
That doesn’t mean, however, that men haven’t been trying, and even succeeding to some degree. The ancient Greeks mixed hemp seeds and rue in alcohol to lower sperm count, a method which worked in rat studies conducted thousands of years later. Gossypol, a polymer found in cottonseed oil used for cooking, turned out to be effective, but had a high risk of permanent infertility. And recently, the folklore that papaya seeds reduce fertility turned out to be accurate.
The problem is that the field’s had several high profile failures. For example, a few months ago, Facebook had a good giggle at the idea of fragile men unable to handle the side effects of an experimental set of hormonal birth control shots. But that ignored that as the study has scaled up, it had gotten more and more reports of excessively increased libido from more than a third of study participants and 20% reporting mood disorders. That meant one of two things: The drug was riskier than previously thought, or something in the trial had gone wrong.
There are, however, a host of other options. Calcium channel blockers, encouraging the immune system to attack sperm, and even an alpha blocker that simply prevents ejaculation are all out there and being tested. And noninvasive surgical options, like the aforementioned Vasalgel, which is already in human trials in India, and a treatment blasting the testicles with ultrasound to kill sperm, are also showing promise.
So what’s the issue? Why is research so slow? In a word? Trust. Women have repeatedly expressed a discomfort in trusting men to be in charge of their reproductive destiny. In fact, it can even be a form of domestic violence: In 2010, 10% of men and 9% of women report they’ve been the targets of reproductive coercion, in which someone is forced into a pregnancy by means of sabotaging their birth control, or being impregnated without their consent. And only recently have the courts viewed removing a condom during sex as a serious crime.
That, combined with the fears of some men that male birth control will make them “less of a man,” can be a difficult hurdle for some to jump. That said, men should be allowed to take more control of their reproductive destiny. And medical science finally seems ready to give them just that.