The Man Pill

What Happens When Male Contraceptives Catch Up?

Photo by Erin Sparks

I have a serious question for the males out there who could, theoretically, impregnate their sexual partners: How many of you would actually take a shot to the scrotum, or an ultrasound to the nuts, in order to assume contraceptive control of your sexual relationship?

According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, a number of experimental male contraceptive methods are in the works to give you more choices than ever to not knock someone up. 

Currently, the available male contraceptives are pretty much limited to condoms, spermicide and vasectomies. With 30 years of research and the creation of male pill prototypes, however, a handful of experimental methods to keep you shooting blanks and baby-free are being tested for the future. 

While the interest may be out there—as an alleged 64 per cent of Canadian men told in 2005 that they’re into the idea—the clinical and cultural questions remain. Would it work? Could it sell? And, perhaps most importantly, what might the social implications look like?

This particular sex-related male pill might not be as easy to market as Viagra, for example. Take the brouhaha surrounding the human papillomavirus vaccine for boys as an example of how less sexy male-oriented treatments face various social challenges in mainstream consciousness.

In this case, young girls have been receiving the HPV treatment already for years—doing so despite the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching hysterics of sexual conservatives about whether or not it would make them “retarded” (Michelle Bachman’s wording, not mine) or sexually immoral.

Only last month did Canadian experts give the recommendation that boys aged 11-15 should also be lining up for three rounds of shots against HPV, which is known to cause genital warts and aggressive cervical and throat cancer—and so far, no one has said anything out loud that might rock the boat.

Will male vaccination increase public support of preventative methods and tone down the morality rhetoric? Will this eventually apply to male pill methods?

Perhaps the success of certain male contraceptives in India is an indication. For the last two decades, the Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance method has been successfully stopping pregnancy there with no known side effects. 

Unfortunately, the method hasn’t exactly taken off over there, and there’s no word as to how soon—if ever—it’ll make its way to North America.
Allegedly, no pharmaceutical companies are willing to financially back the studies required for it to fly—in part, perhaps, because of one of RISUG’s best features: the fact that one treatment would last from six to 15 years.

Compared to a pill you have to take every day, it’s a money-losing venture. From that perspective, it’s not hard to see why the bulk of the male contraceptive discussion centres around pills.

In any case, for there to be progress in this department, the medicine would also have to work.

Modifying body chemistry with hormone therapy can be rough—just talk to any woman who’s had a bad experience on the pill—or people transitioning between genders. It’s hardly simple or foolproof, even today.

For the female pill, at least, side effects include reduced libido, blood clots, weight fluctuation, pelvic pain, bloating, swelling, breast tenderness and headaches. If you smoke, there’s a higher risk of heart conditions.

A male pill might be great if the female partner in a relationship had adverse reactions to required estrogen doses, as it would allow her counterpart to step up to the plate. 

But most men don’t want to take this stuff until it is thoroughly tested. Can you blame ‘em? Many of the side effects of “dry orgasm” drugs, such as phenoxybenzamine and thioridazine are similar to the list above, however—with some notable extras, like erectile dysfunction and “bizarre dreams.”

Once they do regulate the drugs, however, the male pill has a lot of potential to do good, as the World Health Organization maintains contraceptive prevalence is an indicator of population health, development and gender equality. 

According to the Globe’s sources, a United Nations survey found that 75 per cent of Canadian men don’t use contraceptives, which could be due to the fact that they’re in a monogamous relationship or relying on their partners.

The vasectomy market isn’t exactly booming either, and the pull-out method is, as they put it, “dubious.”

So, the more choices, the better—but don’t hold your breath (or your nut sac): the ‘man pill’ seems like it’s going to take a while to get out there.

When it is released, in the somewhat-distant future, perhaps it’s good to start negotiating what a world with more male contraceptives might look like for couples and for our sexual culture. 

Can we anticipate anything about the introduction a pill for men by remembering what its introduction for women looked like in the ‘60s?

The history of the combined oral contraceptive, which was legalized in Canada in 1969 and is currently used by over 100 million women worldwide, was wrought with politics and power dynamics that helped usher in new attitudes and lifestyle choices.

Would the man pill make the cover of Time magazine today, for example? Would it be as wildly popular, igniting a new sexual revolution? What might the impact on gender roles be? Would government bodies or insurance firms help with the tab at all?

It’s worth considering whether or not it might also­­ help finally push sex ed in a more realistic direction.

Would the Catholic Church come down on it as hard for “distorting the nature and purpose of sex?,” the way they did with the female pill? Or, alternately, could it be introduced and accepted without a significant blip on the cultural radar?

Interestingly, the Globe notes “there’s still the question of whether men can be trusted to take reproductive control in a relationship,” which gets to the heart of a whole other debate.

What unwritten, historical biases relegating contraceptive methods as being “a feminine issue” or “a woman’s choice” (because they’re the ones getting pregnant) might be broken?

I guess we’ll just have to find out. This thing is coming, but maybe the bigger story is how—or if—it will have an impact.