Representative image. Photo: Ron Lach/Pexels
Male birth control pills aren’t available yet, but there are already accusations that men won’t want to take them, or can’t be relied upon to take them responsibly.
“Let’s say this new non-hormonal pill for guys makes it to market, and men are willing to try it. Can we really expect them to take a pill every day?” author Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote in the Washington Post in April 2022.
Nearly 50% of pregnancies around the world are unintended. It’s women who ultimately bear the burden, and the argument goes that men will never take contraception seriously unless they can get pregnant themselves.
One reason this bias exists may be that men don’t have the best track record with condoms. Incidences of “stealthing” — taking the condom off during sex without your partner’s consent — are common: In Australia, for example, a staggering 32% of women and 19% of men have experienced stealthing.
But male contraceptive advocates are fighting back against the criticisms, arguing that the demand for male contraceptives has never been higher. They say that men are ready to share the responsibility of birth control.
Men want the pill
A new study, presented at the Reproductive Health Innovation Summit in Boston in February 2023, backs the claims, showing that men and their partners are strongly in favour of new forms of male contraception and that women trust their partners to use them responsibly.
The survey, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, involved 19,000 adult men from eight different countries: Nigeria, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and the US.
“We asked men if they want contraceptives, and if they do, what forms they want. We thought by assessing the situation objectively we could set some of the issues straight,” said Steve Kretschmer, executive director of DesireLine, a consultancy firm involved in the study.
The study found that 78% to 98% of men, depending on the country, would take male contraceptive pills. The demand was high among men regardless of their relationship status.
Women trust their partners to take the pill
The study also aimed to find out what women thought about the issue.
“We also wanted to ask women if they trust men to take contraceptives, and how would it change their use of contraceptives if male contraception became available,” Kretschmer told DW.
The survey showed the demand for male contraception was as high among women as it was among men.
Moreover, women largely trust their partners to use contraception responsibly — 82% to 88% of women in Vietnam, Nigeria and Bangladesh agreed or strongly agreed they would believe it if their partner told them they were taking a contraceptive.
“The data shows men want new birth control forms and women trust their partners to take them,” Heather Vahdat, executive director of the US-based Male Contraceptive Initiative, told DW. “But if a woman doesn’t trust their male partner, then they could both contracept. This isn’t an option right now.”
Changing gender roles
According to Vahdat, society lost track of men’s role in contraception and conception since the female pill was introduced in the 1960s.
“Contraception became synonymous with women’s rights. But we’re now reaching a tipping point with male contraceptives and people are paying attention to them,” she said.
Data in the survey shows men in committed relationships want to be part of the decision-making progress around contraception, as much as they are around conception.
“It comes at a time when men are discussing masculinity more, especially toxic masculinity, and wanting to become more engaged partners,” said Vahdat.
Barriers to male birth control?
While men theoretically want to be part of contraceptive decision making, there are still barriers to overcome before they will actually take a pill.
Not least, the marketing needs to change. Male birth control pills work by causing temporary infertility. How many men would be happy to be infertile? Could they trust infertility to be, in fact, temporary?
On-going large-scale clinical trials testing efficacy and safety of different male birth control forms are looking positive, but some trials have even been cancelled due to concerns about irreversible infertility and other adverse side effects.
Pill needs to be proven safe and effective
Commentators on social media have suggested that men are just being wusses and that women have been suffering similar side effects with the pill for decades. But drug regulators like the FDA are being strict with male contraceptive pill trials. Concerns over sterilisation are not matters to scoff at – they need to be addressed before drugs go onto the market.
After all, men need to be able to trust the pills are safe and effective before women can trust men to take them.
This article was first published on DW.