Male birth control could be key to true equality

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

Will it 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 had control over their bodies and more went into the workplace.

Over half a century later, we are finally about to produce 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 falling testosterone levels caused mood swings and weight gain.

These are similar to the side effects that women on hormonal contraception have had to accept 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 really increase the risk of pregnancy — unlike with the female pill.

“Before the pill came into existence, we couldn’t have predicted the effects it would have in society,” says 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 finally break free of the idea that pregnancy and children are a woman’s responsibility. This could have a huge impact across society, for example, on paternity leave and gender roles.

Or does the news show that the genders are still unequal? Men aren’t expected to put up with side effects of contraception that women have had to suffer for years.

You Decide

  1. Would a male hormonal contraceptive be popular?

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.

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 daily to the chest, shoulder and upper arms.
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.

Word Watch

Revolution
A time of rapid change.
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.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.