Last month a male birth control study was abruptly halted when some participants reported experiencing depression, muscle aches, weight gain, changes to libido and acne.
When I heard this news, I had to actively resist from a massive eye roll lest my eyeballs permanently lodge themselves at the back of my head.
You see, I happened to be coming out of a pill-induced year from hell: a year where I gained 15 pounds give or take a few, been on more emotional benders than the number of times Pluto has lost then regained its planetary status, had passed out at least once on my cold bathroom floor, and had generally spent a solid 365 days experiencing exactly the same symptoms that had led to researchers pulling the plug on their study.
Women are always expected to bear the burden of birth control, though it should be the concern of both
At no point in my year from hell, had the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should be sharing, or allocating, the taxing burdens of hormonal birth control. Turns out, I’m not the only one.
When it comes to sex, it takes two to tango but, since the advent of the the pill in 1957, birth control has primarily been a woman’s concern.
Today’s options for men remain either shockingly biblical (i.e. withdrawal), dull (barrier methods such as condoms), or disturbingly irreversible (i.e. a vasectomy).
For women, however, the list reads as long as a Kardashian’s number of professional athlete ex-boyfriends: the diaphragm; the holy grail of modern medicine, the pill; and the more recent scientific successes such as the patch, the ring, and the intrauterine device (IUD).
A host of options has given women the freedom of choice. The choice to decide when or whether to have kids, the choice to space their pregnancies, and the choice between homemaking, being part of the workers’ economy, or both. And these choices are not merely revolutionary prescriptions. These are basic human rights.
However, female birth control is still burdened with heavy baggage that is guarded by the gatekeepers of religious, corporate, political and scientific institutions.
From Islamic and Catholic religious clerics who condemn contraception on the basis of their interpretation of their Holy scriptures, to religious companies in the US that don’t want to cover birth control for their employees, one thing is abundantly clear: if we continue keeping men’s and women’s reproductive health in separate boxes, the heavier is the price women pay.
It’s unclear who is to blame for this inequality in sex.
Is it the lagging field of science, the blind eye of Big Pharma, or antiquated and misinterpreted religious attitudes? Or, is it simply that, despite all this talk of us having achieved a decent measure of equality between the genders, men still cannot be trusted to take responsibility of something so critical to a woman and a couples’ wellbeing?
I humbly submit that the fact that hormonal male birth control has yet to become a reality is not because of a dearth of scientific effort. In fact, since the time of Gregory Pincus, the co-inventor of the female pill, who first tested his approach on men back in 1957, there has been no shortage of attempts to turn this pipe dream into a reality.
Since the ’50s there have been countless reports of groundbreaking research promising men their own form of hormone-based contraception.
Is it simply that despite all this talk of us having achieved a decent measure of equality between the genders, men still cannot be trusted to take responsibility of something so critical to a woman and a couples’ wellbeing?
However, like the news cycle in general, the hype around such breaking news is short-lived, a-flash-in-the-pan promise that boldly declares that we are “getting there”, are “almost there”, or are right around the corner”, only to then quickly peter out.
The early 2000s began with promising reports of injectable medicine that were allegedly able to stop sperm production by using protein-blocking compounds, which rendered sperm physically incapable of egg fertilisation.
It has been nearly two decades and the researchers behind this study continue to face delays with the most recent delay announced this year when the start date of clinical trials was changed from 2017 to 2018.
In the mid-2000s, public attention was briefly diverted to the promise of non-hormonal options such as India’s RISUG, or vasalgel, which aims to block sperm from reaching the urethra, or the herbal pill Gendarussa, which works by interfering with an enzyme on the sperm head preventing swimmers from penetrating the egg.
In the past year alone there have been numerous reports of potentially successful forms of male birth control — from a short-lasting nasal spray that can be taken just minutes before sex to the group of Japanese scientists who claim to have landed on an immunosuppressant that temporarily renders sperm useless.
Just this past October, a team of British researchers excitedly claimed to have found a way to alter cow sperm in a way that blocked sperm mobility. But, as one of the researchers put it, “if funding for male contraception remains at the current level it’ll probably be another 20-plus years before we get a male pill.”
So if you’re wondering why we are entering 2017 with women predominantly bearing the burden and footing the bill of hormonal birth control, don’t blame the lack of scientific research, blame gender politics and patriarchy.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 1st, 2017