Why aren’t there more male contraceptives?

I couldn’t help but wonder: why wasn’t there a male contraceptive? No seriously, why do people with female reproductive systems have to struggle so, when our penis-owner peers live blissfully in the world of condoms, pulling out, or abstinence?! I think this needs some investigation…

What is commonly referred to as ‘The Pill’ refers to the combined hormonal contraceptive pill containing synthetically produced oestrogen and progestogen, that work to prevent ovulation (the release of an egg) and essentially make the uterus less friendly to sperm. These are therefore for people with female reproductive systems (regardless of your gender identity, contraceptive use is currently divided by biological sex categorisation). Arriving in the UK in 1961, married women were taking daily pills that had up to 7 times the potency of today’s. It is currently the UK’s most popular contraceptive, with 151 million global users.

Interestingly in 1957, Gregory Pincus (one of the men who designed the original contraceptive pill) tested the same hormones on men. Let that sink in. The technology, the ideas, were really there. Many barriers stand in the way of a male contraceptive pill: science, money, culture, politics, the lot. Before we begin looking at the (heavy) science, it must be noted; barrier methods of contraception are the only method that protects against both STIs, and pregnancy. Condoms, as far as I’m concerned, reign supreme in their powers, at 98% effective. However, in broader terms of both hormonal and long-term contraception options, they don’t quite make the popular cut. 

It appears, like many topics related to sex, that male contraceptives, in some form, have been kicking around for millennia – think hot baths for the testicles and cannabis juice. From 1974 onwards, a drug called gossypol that can be extracted from cotton farming waste, was making popular rounds in research groups in Brazil and China. With levels of potassium in the blood dropping and damage to the lining of sperm ducts, it was cast aside. 

Come 2000, a Dutch company seemed to successfully be trialling a contraceptive ‘from a combined progestogen pill and testosterone-releasing implant’. The issue with using testosterone synthetically is that the suppression of sperm production happens differently in different ethnic groups. Unfortunately upon a larger testing group, side effects were more widely reported: an attempted suicide, amongst acne, weight gain, mood swings… sounds familiar.

In early 2006, non-hormonal dry orgasm pills were trialled, with not much success, with some suggesting that men would literally miss the ejaculation

Chewing gandarusa, a shrub, in Indonesia, showed promise of deactivating protein on sperm that helps them enter an egg during the process of fertilisation. Lack of funding, again, failed to drive this any further beyond local, herbal usage.

Again, in 2016, some hope peaked again, via a hormonal contraceptive injection. Despite its efficacy, the side effects reported were significant enough again, to halt the trial. Many of these side effects are routinely recognised as common effects of the female pill, such as depression (found 70% more diagnosed amongst Danish women in one of the largest studies conducted). 

A significant difference in the development of female vs. male reproductive system contraceptives are the scientific rigour attached to male contraceptives. In contrast, the female pill was tested on poor, uneducated women in Puerto Rico without their informed consent, with much more lethal effects. 

Today, it is very uncommon for uterus-owners to be fully satisfied with their contraception options, with many hoping for the release of more non-hormonal options. When surveyed on Instagram (April 2020, Lockdown 1), 70% of people surveyed (around 80) said they would be open to relying on a male contraceptive, which mirrors the general consensus of men surveyed. However, it appears to be much harder to produce male contraceptives given that penis owners are fertile (mostly) all the time, vs, the typical monthly ovulation for people with uteruses.  More women then men are concerned their partners wouldn’t reliably take the pill; and even further so, given that people with uteruses carry pregnancies and thus should be afforded the right to have/not have and safely raise children (see the Reproductive Justice movement), many would still use female contraceptives.

Still, funds and enthusiasm are clearly lacking. And frankly, we want to see results.

Photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition on Unsplash

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