Groundbreaking trial for male contraceptive gel

March of progress: IUD (intrauterine device) is also known as the coil.

Will male birth control transform gender relations? For six decades, women have borne the responsibility of long-term contraception, but a hormonal gel for men is finally on the horizon.

In the early 1960s, the female pill sparked a sexual revolution. For the first time, millions of women gained control over their bodies and surged into the workplace.

Over half a century later, we are finally on the brink of producing a long-term contraceptive for men. Experts hope that it could herald a new revolution in gender relations.

The gel is applied daily to the shoulders, chest and upper arms. It contains a mixture of progesterone, which stops the body producing sperm, and testosterone, which minimises side effects by replacing lost testosterone.

Previous trials of male hormonal contraceptives were abandoned after plummeting testosterone levels caused mood swings and weight gain.

These are similar to the side effects that women on hormonal contraception have endured for decades. The pill increases a woman’s risk of depression by 23%, and can lead to dangerous blood clots.

Once a man starts applying the gel, it takes six week for his sperm count to reduce to zero and, when he stops, roughly the same time for it to return to normal. This means that a few missed days won’t markedly increase the risk of pregnancy — unlike with the female pill.

James Owers is a 29-year-old PhD student. He and his girlfriend, social researcher Diana Bardsley, are among 450 couples across the UK, Sweden, Chile and Kenya trialling the new product over the next year.

“Right now it’s very easy for men to say: ‘It’s not really on me,’,” says Owers. “If the gel becomes widely available, it’s much more stark that by not taking that option, you actively made the decision to not take responsibility.”

“It gives the chance for men to have this great combination of autonomy and more responsibility as well. That can only have a positive impact on the relationship between men and women in society,” agrees Bardsley.

If the trial goes well, researchers are hoping for a surge of interest from pharmaceutical companies.

“Before the pill came into existence, we couldn’t have predicted the effects it would have in society,” said John Reynolds-Wright, the researcher leading the trial. “But like the pill, I think it will be largely for the positive.”

A woman’s place?

So, will the male contraceptive gel transform gender relations? It could help us to break away, finally, from the idea that pregnancy — and, by extension, parenthood — are, ultimately, a woman’s responsibility. This could have a profound impact across society, for example, on paternity leave and gender roles.

Or does it, in fact, highlight the inequality whereby men are being offered treatment free from side effects, that is denied to women? And will men, like Owers, embrace their new reproductive autonomy? Or is the association of hormonal contraception with femininity too ingrained?

You Decide

  1. Would a male hormonal contraceptive be popular?
  2. Should men and women have equal responsibility for contraception?

Activities

  1. Choose one of the methods of contraception in the graphic at the top of this article. Research two benefits and two negatives for using it.
  2. Make a medical leaflet explaining what the new gel is; how it works, and how it is being trialled. Use the links in Become An Expert to help you.

Some People Say...

“Woman must have her freedom: the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother [...]. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers.”

Margaret Sanger, US birth control activist (1879-1966)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The new gel is being trialled by 450 couples over the next year. It is applied to the chest, shoulder and upper arms, once a day. Men using the new gel are advised to shower or wear a T-shirt before sharing a bed with their partner, who could otherwise absorb the testosterone second-hand.
What do we not know?
When it will be in chemists. The first male hormonal contraceptive was tested in 1957 but, 62 years later, we are still waiting for one to become widely available. Part of the problem is due to the many testing and regulatory requirements a new drug must meet. Even if these tests go smoothly, marketing the drug can take many more years.

Word Watch

Workplace
In the USA, the number of women taking courses in business, law and medicine surged in the 1970s, as women were able to plan having children around their careers.
Previous trials
In 2016, a trial of a hormonal injection for men was discontinued because they experienced side-effects, including weight gain and depression.
Side effects
Typical side effects of the female contraceptive pill include nausea, acne, weight gain, mood swings and irregular bleeding.
Autonomy
Having control over your own life, or freedom.
Pharmaceutical companies
These companies research, develop and sell drugs so that they become available to the public. Getting drugs to market can cost billions of pounds.

Subjects

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