• Lauren Oakley

Time to take (birth) control - male contraception is on the way and it’s time you thought about it

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Contraception is often seen as something only women take, but times are changing. Lauren Oakley investigates how to break the stigma surrounding male contraception and discovers why it’s time for men to take responsibility.

You’ve popped the question. ‘Are you on the pill?’ you say after a romantic meal and now you are back at her place. It’s that awkward pre-coital conversation except in 2021 your girlfriend might say the exact same thing to you.

Contraception is often seen as a drag in your sex life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The latest science and technology wizards are trialling and testing new forms of male contraception and men are taking the leap of faith into the world of birth control. It’s time to break the stigma surrounding it and take responsibility. Instead of wondering if your girlfriend is on the pill after a romance fuelled evening, you can rest easy knowing you’re covered.

A survey by Hard Pill to Swallow in 2020 found that 17 percent of men believe that contraception is for females only. However, that same survey also found that 83 percent of men would take a form of male contraception if available to them.

James Owers was 29 and busy studying for his computer science PhD in Edinburgh when he made the decision to take control of his sex life. “The burden of contraception is taken on by women and I want there to be more options for men so that they can take responsibility. It would be good for men to step up and take some of that burden. It’s easy for people to say, ‘well there isn’t really an option for me’ but I personally would like that excuse to go away.” James and his girlfriend, Deena, were in Edinburgh on a wintery day in February last year, when Deena came across an exciting and potentially life changing online BBC news story.

The apprehensive couple read on and discovered that researchers were looking for 80 volunteers in Edinburgh and Manchester to participate in a two-year study to trial a male contraceptive gel as their sole method of birth control. The opportunity to be part of a ground-breaking clinical trial was too good to let slip between their fingers and unforgivable to ignore. Dedicating two years of your life is a big ask, but fortunately James and Deena were in the right place at the right time to commit.

Scientifically, the contraceptive gel is recognised as NES/T. It was developed by the Population Council and the NICHD (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development). The trial is part of an international project funded by the US National Institute of Health and led by the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

At the beginning of the trial, James travelled to the hospital where doctors monitored his sperm count prior to using the contraceptive gel. It is designed to trigger a reaction in the brain that makes the testes stop producing sperm, so once he started applying the gel the doctors monitored his sperm count decreasing. Expectedly, James became almost infertile due to the lack of sperm that was being created. After that stage, the main part of the trial began. For the trial to work correctly and produce accurate results, the girlfriends and wives of the participants had to stop using their contraceptives for one year. The final phase of the study is for the men to stop using the gel, which is to ensure that their sperm production returns, which researchers said would happen.

Much like female birth control, James had to remember to apply the gel once a day, every day. “I’d do this after I showered. Essentially you have a small pump, you push it down and it gives you the correct dosage into your hand and you rub it onto your shoulder as if it were sun cream. The consistency is really similar to the alcohol gel we’ve all recently become very familiar with and it rubs in at the same sort of rate. The entire process is quicker than brushing your teeth.”

Now 31 and a data scientist, James is near to completing his PhD in Edinburgh whilst coming to the end of the contraceptive gel trial. Throughout his journey, the question that lingered unanswered in James’ mind was ‘why is there a stigma surrounding male contraception?’ and his experience so far has helped him to answer that.

Once it becomes readily available, having a form of male contraception will empower both men and women. Men will have the responsibility and control over their own future and women, some of whom have been on contraception since their teenage years, can have an option to say no, just like James’ girlfriend. “Deena is 28 and she had been taking contraceptives of one form or another since she was 16. She realised that she didn’t know what normal felt like anymore, so it was interesting for her to be able to go ‘okay, now I’m not on a contraceptive, any of these feelings that I have are just related to my normal bodily function’ as opposed to some side effect.”

Before participating in the contraceptive trial, James had already prepared himself for the side effects that he may face throughout. For the most part, the side effects he may have experienced would be similar to what women go through; acne, weight gain, mood swings, to name a few. “The most prominent thing was that I got a lot more hot and sweaty. This has noticeably decreased since I’ve stopped using the gel, but I’ll be honest, it really didn’t bother me that much. The other side effect was definitely an increased sex drive which was positive and negative at different times. I also got some acne on my back, but I barely noticed. I also gained a little bit of weight.”

Researchers say that the hormone-based gel is designed to not affect the man’s libido, however it considerably increased for James. “Different couples have different experiences, so I wouldn’t say James is an anomaly, but this isn’t a widespread finding either, however the trial is still ongoing.” Said Richard Anderson, a professor of clinical reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the study. “As a widely based contraceptive, it may take a while to become available. It will be years - if ever. New medicines of any sort need large phase three trials before they can be licensed.”

In the US state of North Carolina, located in Durham, the ‘City of Medicine’, lies Male Contraceptive Initiative (MCI), a non-profit organisation which provides funding and advocacy support for the research and development of new methods of male contraception. MCI was founded in 2014 and continues to campaign for a ‘reproductive autonomy for all’.

“If you are unwilling to accept the responsibility for your actions, you really don’t deserve the right to those actions. It’s not masculine to get somebody pregnant and then leave them, or say ‘your problem, it's not my issue’. It takes a sperm producer and an egg producer to create a child and because of that, it’s extremely important for us to have the tools and resources for both men and women to do what’s necessary to meet their family planning goals.” Kevin Shane, 43, is the marketing and communications director for MCI, and has been working with the charity for two years. “Some people would look at contraception and say ‘oh you want to facilitate a hook-up culture’ or ‘it’s all about sex’ but no, the reality is that imagine just how incredible the world will be when we have men and women able to really maintain control over their reproductive health, it’s going to change the world.”

Logan Nickels, 32, is the research director for MCI. “The way we can tackle contraception now is to appeal to men’s sense of responsibility. Even if they see contraception as the female partner’s responsibility, reproduction does take two and I think appealing to men’s ideas of ‘do you want to go through the process of unintended pregnancy’ or ‘do you want to be responsible for your own reproductive destiny’ is one way to reach those men that maybe have opinions that it’s not quite their place. We also need to normalise talking about male contraception.”

Despite the fact male contraception could take many years to become readily available, it’s time for men to start thinking about the role they play in reproduction and what they could do to help in terms of contraception. Having the responsibility to take a form of male birth control is not only empowering for your partner, but it’s also empowering for you to take control over your sex life and your future, as well as looking out for your partner. Breaking the stigma surrounding male birth control is important too. We are finally at the point in society where we are accepting of men being stay-at-home dads or men who are house husbands instead of being the breadwinner, what’s wrong with throwing male birth control into the mix? So, have the will to take the pill (when it becomes available, that is).

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