Why I Want A Male Birth Control Pill

By Kyle Munkittrick | March 28, 2011 8:30 am

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!

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Transhumanism

Comments (25)

  1. Jamie Flowers

    Totally agree, this would be one of the great achievements of humanity. But i would prefer a non hormone based solution. Not that i wouldn’t take it if it were the only option but some women really are in trouble with these little mood pills. Ultrasound sounds very good to me.
    Go, science, GO!

  2. Eleanor

    I bet that’s going to be the standard response to all suggestions for a male hormone pill: nah, it might make me moody. Yet it’s OK that women have to take hormone pills instead?

  3. Katie

    I’m a huge fan of double protection. Pregnancy on the pill happens. You forget a day, get a prescription that nullifies it, or you have a reproductive system that laughs at puny low-dose solutions (in my family several women have gotten pregnant on the pill, and all have gotten pregnant immediately after going off of it, even though that should be impossible).

    Also, men are often a little too eager to believe a woman when she says she’s on the pill. Yes, most women are really responsible, but there are a few that either don’t take it reliably, or throw caution to the wind because they think that counting days since their period works.

  4. John Didion

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of developing better male contraceptive options. But really, why should we have to settle for a hormone pill? How…last century. There is a completely safe, highly effective (at least as effective as the female pill), completely reversible, non-hormonal method that has been under development for the past 20 years and is currently in Phase III clinical trials. It’s called RISUG. Information on this and all other methods of male contraception currently under development is available here: http://www.malecontraceptives.org/.

  5. DK

    “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.”

    The reason it doesn’t work for men isn’t because of the # of sperm, it’s because they don’t have ovaries. Women could ovulate a thousand times in a month and the pill would still work because it tells the body that it is pregnant. Pregnant = no ovulating.

  6. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Eleanor: I completely agree. And Mr. Didion was kind enough to prove your premonition true. I would happily accept a hormone pill over nothing. But since researchers are struggling with hormone as well as the other forms, I’d rather see a non-hormonal method come out on top. And regardless of what happens for men, if we can get a better non-hormonal form of BC for women, all the better.

    @John Didion: Thanks for the info and the link. Wikipedia presents a more balanced picture of RISUG. Most scientific sources I read haven’t mentioned RISUG, but it looks promising if it’s not junk science.

    @DK: A worthy point. I’d note that the reason one egg is relevant is that production only occurs monthly, meaning that hormones only need to interrupt that single event, as opposed to the constant production of sperm. The rate and timing of gamete production is as relevant as number.

  7. Bee

    @DK: The pill doesn’t ‘tell the body that it is pregnant.’ Read this, it might help

    http://womenshealth.about.com/od/thepill/f/howpillworks.htm

  8. Paul

    A male pill will not stop a woman from getting pregnant.
    There’ a lot of cheating going on out there. Sadly it seems its too easy to forget in the heat of an illicit encounter that it is their husband that is now controlling their ability to have a baby.

  9. Another factor which you just mentioned at the end, but I feel is important, is the fact that it allows the man to have more control.

    Somebody I know was lied to by his girlfriend that she was on the pill, but she really just wanted to get pregnant so she could force him to be with her (both of which happened). I’m sure it’s happened to a fair amount of other men as well.

    Something like a pill for men could’ve keep this from happening, and that’s good.

  10. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Bee: cheers! great link.

    @Paul: Umm… if the male pill works, it will stop the man taking it from impregnating a woman. The whole point is that BOTH parties are now able to be responsible. Does that necessarily mean they will be? of course not.

    @Jeremy: The idea of “control” is less important than “responsibility.” Reproduction is a responsibility of those who are sexually active. A deceptive partner is in the wrong, but the burden of responsibility lies with both people to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

  11. tony mig

    the smart ones will take it. the dumb ones won’t. guess what the offspring will be like ???

  12. Dunc

    . If there are so many options, why don’t we have one that works?

    Because women already have an in-built hormonal mechanism to suppress ovulation, but men don’t have an equivalent mechanism to suppress sperm production.

  13. Robert S-R

    @tony mig: It is not clear that that would necessarily happen:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysgenic

  14. Emily

    This is a really interesting and thoughtful piece. I for one would love to let my body take a break after 8 years of hormonal birth control and let my partner take a turn. I had been pondering all through this post, though, would I really be willing to trust that the other person is being responsible and taking the pill everyday? Which, of course, is what men would go through every time they have sex with a woman who is on the pill, whether they consciously consider it or not. A point that you did make!

    I think the major difference is that, at the end of the day, it’s my body that’s going to have a baby growing inside it, and all that that entails. I sure wouldn’t trust that wallet condom on any day that ends in Y, ya know? It’s going to take an enormous cultural shift before getting pregnant after a one-night stand affects both partners equally.

    Anyway, I know that you are not arguing for a male birth control pill in lieu of a female birth control pill, but rather for both partners to have the opportunity to effectively protect against unwanted pregnancy. I dig it!

  15. BobStuan

    Male bc has been available in one form or another for 20 years now overseas. It hasn’t hit the west because of misandry.

  16. Ian

    “It makes the world a better place. Female hormonal birth control is an exemplary form of human enhancement.”

    Wow what a claim to make without any references. Tell me then, how is interference with MHC and partner selection seen as a form of “human enhancement”?

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/10/07/are-birth-control-pills-changing-the-mating-game/

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/realitybase/2008/08/13/does-the-pill-keep-you-from-finding-a-good-mate/

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2008/08/taking-the-pill-might-make-your-brother-hawt/

  17. Robert S-R

    @BobStuan: We need names and places. What’s your evidence?

  18. GAC

    I would quibble with the statement about society valuing male virility. While it’s generally true in society at large, it is not true for all families or all parts of society. I was raised in a household where both male and female abstinence was highly valued, and my parents constantly harped on me about avoiding sex until marriage. As such, to this day I am uncomfortable with the idea of buying condoms, especially when I am not in any kind of relationship and am thus not expecting opportunities for sex on anything like a regular basis. I know I should have some “just in case”, but it makes me socially anxious: Who might see me buy them? What if my parents found them somewhere while visiting or helping me move? I have a feeling I would have similar issues with a male birth control pill, especially if I have to go into a store to get it.

  19. Kyle Munkittrick

    @ Robert S-R: “What’s your evidence?” One of my favorite sentences. Thank you!

    @ GAC: I agree, my argument does require something of a generalization. I don’t deny men like yourself or others who grow up in socially/religiously conservative households are encouraged to remain abstinent with the same fervor as women. That said, among general society, where pre-marital sex and sexuality in general is a bit more open, women tend to bear the brunt of “sex is shameful” attitudes. My suspicion is that between a woman and a man in your situation, the woman would bear greater scorn for purchasing contraceptives.

  20. Even conservative parents will want their sons to have birth control pills, because conservative parents know “boys will be boys.”

    I disagree. There is no stigma associated with a man having gotten a girl pregnant. In many places, it’s a point of pride. Conservative culture only holds women to the higher moral standard.

  21. jemand

    http://www.malecontraceptives.org/methods/suspensories.php

    It seems the research has already gotten a perfectly reversible, non-hormonal, male method of birth control.

    Now granted, I wouldn’t want to be wearing that kind of underwear everyday, but I guess I wasn’t so thrilled to start wearing a bra in puberty either, so I suppose men COULD get used to it.

  22. Ian

    It seems that there are many parallels between this issue and the HPV vaccine, and it’s hard to believe that much of the delay in male birth control and a vaccine for men (and boys) isn’t overt and subtle sexism. The unequal treatment says that men don’t have to worry (or even be responsible) about STDs and pregnancy while women do, that men have the authority to delegate this responsibility to women, and that men are too stupid and lazy to be responsible for these things. Even if the delays are legitimate, culture still sends these messages, especially when we start treating non-medical hurdles as hurdles. As a man, I want a male birth-control pill as soon as possible.

  23. Mr. Johnson

    Yeah, you guys give us nothing. Hell even RISUG is on hold and it’s got a much better chance of being reversed than Vas-Procedures. I can’t believe the feminist tripe out there, you shouldn’t be able blame men until you let them at least as much control over their own reproductive process, a freedom women have had for fifty years. But You don’t hear about men’s sexual oppression, You just hear more women gripe about how we didn’t give them an option, while we are being put under thumb screw of debt for their decisions, without so much as the freedom to make a peep. Give men the God dam pill it’ll slap that smug look of entitlement off their face quicker than a jackrabbit fucks, and You might even save the fucking economy from these idiots drawing child support and welfare. That is if they don’t start molesting minors and the mentally handicap.

  24. Marie

    I think you made some great points although I would like to add a topic I’m surprised you didn’t mention. Men have NO say in what women choose to do when we find out we are pregnant. Men can make suggestions, they can “try to take matters into their own hands”, however, other than condoms and lets face it everyone forgets sometimes, men have no way to protect their assets. Right now at least in Oregon the minimum child support payment is $275/month! That’s $3,300/yr and $59,400 by the time the child is 18! Since it takes two to tango, it would be in the best interest of this country if men had alternatives so they could protect themselves from the significant financial effects of unplanned pregnancy.

  25. MmkHere

    Why is it that women have to be the one blamed for pregnancy?
    “You forgot to take your pill?”
    “I took it! It’s not like birth control is 100% effective dumbass!”
    I mean seriously, men are the ones really in charge. They have the sperm, which causes the pregnancy. Without men, women can’t really get pregnant. I wish there was an effective birth control for guys. Also, the pill (for men and women) wouldn’t stop you from getting an STD.

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