The Problem With Male Birth Control Is Men

Every few months, we’re treated to news that a new type of male birth control is on the horizon. (For proof, see here, here, here, or here.) This week, it’s in the form of a gel men can rub on their backs and shoulders. Women are expected to take a pill that can mess with our hormones daily for years on end or have a piece of metal shoved through our cervix, but sure, men deserve birth control that could essentially double as massage oil.

Anyway, with all these promising male birth control options, why aren’t they a normal part of family planning and sexual health already? It’s a combination of factors. First, you have situations in which clinical trials for male birth control are cut short because the participants couldn’t tolerate the side effects. And yes, of course, these are many of the same side effects women using hormonal contraceptives have been putting up with since the 1960s.

Then there’s the fun fact that men (well, people with a penis) can’t get pregnant, so if they’re in charge of birth control and mess it up, ultimately, it’s not their body that’s going to go through at least nine months of hell and probably never go back to its original shape.

And it’s not just me. In an article in HuffPost, Doyin Richards notes that while he’s in favor of men stepping up and taking some responsibility for birth control, in reality, any form other than a one-and-done vasectomy may prove to be too much for them. He writes, “If we injected the average guy with a truth serum and asked him what a perfect form of contraception would look like, he’d probably say, ‘Anything that doesn’t involve me.’”

But that’s just one guy’s opinion. New research conducted by SingleCare (a website that provides medical cost comparisons for consumers) surveyed 998 sexually active heterosexual people between the ages of 18 and 37 to get their take on male birth control, and the results were surprising. When given several male birth control options  including a pill, a topical gel and a nonhormonal injection  around 40 percent of men went with “none of the above.” Honestly, I was expecting that number to be much higher, but also, this is just a survey, where it’s easy to tick a box and think you’d do something in theory but act completely differently in practice.

Speaking of hypothetical scenarios, 72 percent of men and 74 percent of women surveyed indicated they believed responsibility for birth control should be shared between both partners. More men than women (21 percent vs. 17 percent) said that they felt women should be exclusively responsible for birth control. In reality, though, according to a 2018 article in The Journal of Sex Research, the responsibility for preventing pregnancy falls almost exclusively on the person with the uterus.

Infographic on male birth control
Image: SingleCare

When it came to the perceived risks of male birth control, the potential side effects were the biggest concerns: 67 percent of men were concerned about sexual side effects, while 54 percent were worried about the impact on their mental health.

The promising news is that 40 percent of the men surveyed indicated they would be willing to take a male birth control pill, and more than half the women in the study said they would be open to having their male partner take an oral contraceptive. But as Richards points out, taking a pill every day is a pretty big commitment — so how confident are people men would step up? As it turns out, around 72 percent of women and 70 percent of men trust men to take the pill correctly.

Of course, two forms of male birth control have been around for a while: vasectomies and condoms. We know vasectomies are safe, effective and reversible, but according to a 2015 United Nations report, only around 10 percent of men actually get one. More people opt for using condoms (12 percent, according to the same U.N. report), but just because it goes on a penis doesn’t mean that person is the one providing and/or initiating that form of birth control.

If the results of this survey hold up in reality (as opposed to a hypothetical scenario), it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Being born with a uterus should not be a life sentence, and the closer we get to being able to share the burden of reproductive responsibility, the better.

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