The 50th Anniversary of the Pill was last year. Lots and lots of people mentioned how good, bad, unimportant, or essential the Pill has been. Our society changed the way it thought about sex, about reproduction, even about love and relationships. Women being able to take control of their reproductive abilities is one of the greatest advancements in the history of modern human biology. Even if it isn’t universally beloved, the Pill is worth defending and improving. It makes the world a better place. Female hormonal birth control is an exemplary form of human enhancement.
But, astonishingly, non-barrier birth control for men doesn’t yet exist. The current choices are condoms or vasectomies. That’s it. We are in want of a form of birth control that makes men temporarily and reversibly infertile. We don’t have it, we need it, and when it comes out, it’ll be as revolutionary as the Pill itself. It’s on my list of must-have forms of reproductive enhancement, along with artificial wombs.
Which brings us to the question at hand: where the hell is it already? Much like cold-fusion and flying cars, male birth control is always “just around the corner.” The “bright pill” is trying to inhibit the reproductive function of sperm. Ultrasound might be able to interrupt sperm production so that a man is temporarily sterile for six months at a time. Hormones might also be an option. If there are so many options, why don’t we have one that works? The problem seems to be the sheer number of sperm. Females ovulate once a month, meaning one, count ’em, one egg is released. Men are, uh, different. To quote an expert:
“Men make 1,000 sperm every second,” said John Amory, a male reproductive specialist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s proven to be a lot more difficult to turn that degree of production off compared to one egg a month.”
That is just way too many sperm. But pure biology doesn’t seem to capture the problem. Other problems include male willingness to take the pill, impact on libido, and other social and physiological side-effects.
Which brings up new questions about the male pill: Will men remember to take it? Will men want to take it? Will it emasculate men too much to be worth while? Or are men just too stupid and awful to ever be able to have that kind of responsibility? Just as all of the articles recounting the impact of the Pill on our society weren’t talking about chemical compositions or dosages, the reason male birth control is important is not the science. It’s the sociology. Male non-barrier birth control has the potential to change society as much as the female birth control pill. And that’s why we need it so badly. The male pill isn’t just about safe sex and birth control, oh no. It’s about the way we think about safe sex and birth control. Once you understand, you’ll want the male birth control pill too.
Women are constantly bombarded with reminders that they can make babies. Furthermore, they are constantly reminded that it can happen accidentally. Consider this: no matter what the situation, men are only required to think about safe sex right before or as it’s happening, but never in the interim. Whether or not she’s sexually active, a woman is constantly being asked if she’s pregnant, might be pregnant, or is planning on getting pregnant. She’s getting check-ups to make sure she doesn’t have a disease, or cancer, or polyps, and is probably on or considering some form of birth control based on the possibility that she might have sex in the future. Because male birth control doesn’t exist, we don’t even think about it.
Sex as we know it has two major biological problems: disease and unintended pregnancy. For men there are approximately four ways of dealing with these issues without the need for a partner’s help: abstinence, condoms, coitus interruptus, and vasectomies. Abstinence prevents everything, including sex itself, so it’s kind of like avoiding food poisoning and gaining weight via fasting: yes it works, but it isn’t exactly practical for most of us. Coitus interruptus is pretty much the worst – precum and partial ejaculation (yes, these are things that happen) can still cause pregnancy, not to mention the incredible test of will power involved. In both cases of abstinence or coitus interruptus, things are left to a man’s will power and self-control. The problem is that in the case of abstinence, if will power breaks down, safe sex of any kind is likely the last consideration. In the case of coitus interruptus, as well as vasectomies, the concern is pregnancy, not disease. Condoms are the best option men have, as they both protect quite well against disease, prevent accidental pregnancy and still allow, you know, sex.
Women have a whole range of birth control options, including hormonal ones, for which there is no male analog: IUDs, sponges, cervical caps, the Pill, and Plan B. All of these options require planning ahead, going to the doctor, thinking about what sort of sex might happen and what to do if the birth control doesn’t work. Further, a woman is often required to think about all of these problems knowing her male partner is blissfully unaware and probably unconcerned with them. Guys just don’t have the same societal pressures or signals. Men don’t think about birth control or pregnancy as much. With a male pill, guys would be forced plan beyond just a condom in the wallet. We would have to chat with our doctor, try different methods (ultrasound or hormones?) and get regular check-ups. Birth control would finally be on our collective male minds.
Which brings us to the following point: one of the major benefits that goes ignored is that a male pill would destigmatize the female use of the pill. Currently, birth control is a single sex issue. The pill is a women’s rights issue, a “special interest group” issue, an identity politics issue, a liberal issue. Male birth control is not, because male issues are not often labeled “special interest group” issues (which is another problem and discussion all together). Women, particularly young women and teenagers, are often not just embarrassed to go on the pill, but are seen as promiscuous or easy for doing so. They are slut-shamed out of making responsible decisions. Many parents actively prohibit their daughters from going on the pill because they (falsely) believe that 1) fear of pregnancy will prevent early sex (it doesn’t) and that 2) the use of the pill will encourage their daughter to sleep around without other protections (it doesn’t).
The enormous problem here is that while girls are forced to contemplate STDs and pregnancy early, boys are largely unconcerned until they have sex for the first time. In many cases, it will be the girl who asks about a condom or says “I’m on the pill, it’s ok” or something else responsible. If the two do have sex without any protection, the girl is forced to deal with the consequences, be it Plan B, abortion, or pregnancy. A male pill would dramatically alter some consciousnesses. Both sexes would be having discussions about preventing pregnancy as well as preventing diseases in sex-ed. The burden of responsibility would be equalized early on.
Another major perceived problem is, of course, is that taking the pill will be emasculating. I emphasize “perceived” because I’ve always found this argument baffling. I don’t know why anyone thinks being responsible is emasculating. You know all those “man up” and “be a man” and “this looks like a job for a man” slogans? Well, they imply repsonsibility. A man takes care of things. Why can’t one of those things be his fertility? I don’t want to have a kid right now, so I nullify my fertility with a pill. That sounds pretty manly to me.
But the male pill isn’t just about me. I want the men around me to start taking responsibility. The male pill is something that men are going to talk about. “Are you on it?” “Feel any different?” Suddenly birth control isn’t something you think about right before or right after sex, but daily, in the locker room and at the office and every day when you take the pill. There will be ads on TV (no more footballs through the tire swing, please), your doctor will ask if you want it, and it’ll come up in entertainment. When an accidental pregnancy happens, suddenly it won’t just be “did you use a condom?” but “why weren’t you on the pill?” It’s easy to forget a condom in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to explain why you weren’t on the pill.
Now for the real kicker: once the male pill is readily available, it will normalize birth control. Even conservative parents will want their sons to have birth control pills, because conservative parents know “boys will be boys.” Male sexuality and virility is a point of pride for the Fox News father. Might as well make sure the boy doesn’t cause too much trouble while he’s sowing his wild oats, right? A guy who carries condoms around is cool, a girl who does is a slut. The double-standard effect might still exist, but if anything a guy does to show he’s having regular sex is a status symbol, then imagine the effect of the pill. A condom in the wallet says “I might get lucky tonight.” The pill says, “I have sex all the damn time.”
No matter how “emasculating” people think it might be, the male pill will be a real alternative to pulling-out and vasectomies and would give monogamous couples much more reliable birth control. Since the male pill would signal a man as virile and sexually active, it would sell like crazy. And for those with a fragile male self image, just consider the increased male responsibility, normalization of birth control and reduced accidental pregnancies as fringe benefits.
Finally, the male pill will put a real dent in abortion rates. Since the male pill will offer a non-barrier method that doesn’t rely on either will power or permanent surgery, it will help separate the “birth control” part of sex from the “disease control” part of sex. Barriers, namely male and female condoms, are awesome because they prevent disease and pregnancy. But if both people are on the pill, get tested and are monogamous, then the condom is irrelevant. If both people are on the pill and aren’t monogamous, the condom becomes protection against disease, but if the condom breaks or is forgotten, then a child of passion is still unlikely. The combined impact of increased male responsibility, birth control normalization, and male pill usage would probably reduce accidental pregnancy by an order of magnitude.
I don’t want my only birth control options to be a condom, vasectomy, or trusting her. Those aren’t enough choices. Furthermore, birth control is something men don’t think about right up until they have sex. In addition to reducing accidental pregnancy, the male pill would increase male responsibility, awareness, and understanding of birth control in general. As a result, our society’s understanding of sex, reproduction, and relationships would change again and for the better. Human enhancement is all about overcoming biology, and the male pill would be one heck of a step forward.
To say this issue is controversial is an understatement. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment and blog away!