Accountability in Contraception: The Possibilities of Male Birth Control

When you hear the phrase “birth control”, the first thing that comes to mind might be the pills typically taken by women. When someone mentions contraception in general, you may think of condoms largely used by men. But between these two methods of pregnancy prevention, which one requires more day-to-day consideration? Which one notably affects hormonal levels and is more likely to cause a myriad of side effects? Unsurprisingly, the female birth control pills. The stakes for female and male birth control are very different. As it stands, society seems to assert that contraception and hormone regulation are responsibilities that should be predominantly shouldered by women. Men are hardly ever held to the same level of accountability. Some may argue that men don’t need to prioritize contraception as much since women’s bodies are the ones primarily impacted by birth control failures. Frankly, that point is BS and emerges as an excuse fueled by hegemonic masculinity. It reinforces the notion that men have the permission to care less about pregnancy prevention since the risks to their physical well-being are lower. This line of logic is similar to the one used by some people who refuse to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic. Heaven forbid we ask people to make health decisions with others in mind too. The current imbalance in contraception expectations is ridiculous since, as it is often said, it takes two to tango. However, others maintain that men would be more invested in contraception if only there were more male birth control options available. This argument warrants a more nuanced consideration. 

According to reputable sources like WebMD, men have four main methods of contraception: condoms, vasectomy, outercourse, and withdrawal. The most popular of these are condoms and vasectomy since these methods have the least amount of impact on the very nature of sexual interactions. Though condoms are widely used, they also aren’t very reliable. When condoms are used correctly, they only have a 3% failure rate, but due to certain logistical hurdles and mishaps, condoms have a 14% failure rate overall. For many birth control specialists, that percentage is uncomfortably high. A vasectomy, on the other hand, is the most successful birth control option for men with a .0015% failure rate. However, vasectomies are more or less permanent. They aren’t completely irreversible, but undoing a vasectomy is a lot more complicated than getting one. Admittedly, current male birth control options are quite limited. Condoms are accessible but subject to malfunctioning and vasectomies are effective but difficult to reverse. Having more male birth control options would help to account for some of the flaws in current methods and enable men to be more active participants in contraception discussions. 

But here’s the deal. There have been major pushes to expand male contraceptive methods over the past couple decades. Researchers are developing a male birth control pills, injections, and topical gels as I write this. (Although, some of the energy for these efforts in the labs may have been reallocated to a coronavirus vaccine). However, experts predict that none of these methods will be widely available for at least 10 years. Why the long wait? Well, it is partially out of the desire to ascertain the safety of these methods through more clinical trials. But mostly, and also more problematically, the delay is due to the tepid response from men and pharmaceutical companies in seeing the need to bring male birth control to market. Would men use these birth control methods if made available? It seems to depend on who you ask. In 2016, an entire male birth control pill study was shut down because a few men reported comparably mild side effects like fluctuating sex drives and acne. Fortunately, organizations like Male Contraceptive Initiative are huge proponents of investing in the expansion of options, with a special emphasis on non-hormonal and reversible ones. And yet, some experts assert that pharmaceutical firms have zero industry interest in investing male options since the market is so profitable and saturated with female ones. Different online polls report different degrees of willingness from men in trying these methods and potentially using them consistently. As you can see, things are a bit all over the place. Without enough consensus, there won’t be any mobilization.  

Ultimately, men need to understand that they do in fact have a vital role in contraception that can be explored beyond the condom and other current options. Broadening what birth control can mean for as many people as possible is paramount in striving for equity.  The more options, the more access, the more nuance, the more dialogue, the merrier. Besides, encouraging advancement in this field will be to the benefit of everyone’s sex lives. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

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