The quest for a hormonal male birth control method has been in the works for decades. Every time science seems to make a breakthrough in male pregnancy prevention, the new technology is delayed for some reason or another.
According to pharmacist Bonnie Ollika, the only methods currently available to men who want to continue having sexual intercourse “are condoms or a vasectomy.” Even then, the Canadian Women’s Health Network estimates that 15 per cent of women face unwanted pregnancy due to condom misuse.
“The prevailing beliefs are that as soon as men ejaculate and leave, that’s all they have to do,” said Fiona Angus, a sociology professor at MacEwan University. “And then anything that happens after that is the woman’s responsibility.”
“It is somehow her responsibility to make sure she has some kind of device in place or medication in place if she doesn’t want to get pregnant,” said Angus. “So, there is very much that kind of blaming the victim, which you see still to this day.”
Angus expressed that this idea stems from history, where women didn’t have much choice with regard to childbirth. This was due to the supervision they were under from husbands and, usually, male doctors. It was the shift from homebirth to hospitals that “removed a lot of the autonomy of women in that regard.”
The invention of today’s common hormonal birth control (the estrogen/progesterone oral contraceptive pill) only began to be marketed in the 1960s, due to a large push from the feminist movement. Many feminists saw reproductive rights as the key to women’s liberation, and that included birth control being widely available.
Today, while male options for birth control remain slim, women have over 14 methods available to them, with both temporary and irreversible options.
None of these options are 100 per cent fool-proof, however, and each has its own set of problems associated with it. Many women are under the impression that side effects are simply part of the deal and will not always come forward with complaints.
‘It’s a matter of changing beliefs about gender, and especially beliefs around masculinity.’
“Women tend to have much higher levels of tolerance of pain because they tend to have no choice,” said Angus. “Women are far more likely to believe that they have to tolerate this. It is also the case that when women go to their doctor to complain about something, they are often not taken seriously by that doctor.”
Ollika explained that the most common side effects of popular forms of birth control are fairly minor and include things like nausea and spotting — but more serious consequences, like blood clots and increased risks of certain types of cancer, are still a possibility.
Despite the potential side effects that afflict women who use birth control, Angus thinks it is still the ultimate weapon in women’s emancipation.
“Certainly at the basis, any mechanism that allows women to control their actual reproduction is very empowering,” said Angus. “If you don’t have that power and you’re regularly having sex with your partner, you have that spectre of potential pregnancy hanging over you at all times.”
“It can be very inhibiting for a lot of women, even in terms of their ability to enjoy the actual sex act, if they’re terrified that this one is going to end up in (pregnancy).”
Currently, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to make male birth control a priority. Though several promising medications have made it to the testing phase, none are able to progress
“That I’m aware of, there’s certainly nothing coming down the pipes (for male birth control),” said Ollika.
There is a lot more to the problem than just availability, however, even if a male form of birth control is released in the future. The values that encourage women to take control of their fertility are the same values that discourage men from being more involved with decisions around contraception, according to Angus.
“There’s still that belief that the more children that a man creates, the more it expands his masculine power,” she said. “That’s all tied up in the symbolism of the penis as a sort of weapon (and) a tool … The penis is an extremely powerful symbol, especially in the Western notions of masculinity.”
Changing the ideas society has surrounding birth control would also mean changing the traditional values around what it means to be a man or a woman.
Angus believes that if a male form of birth control was invented, certain men would take the initiative, and in turn, take the onus off of their partner. However, she emphasized that these men would probably be progressive thinkers and likely of a younger demographic, since new generations are starting to question the importance of classic masculine behavior.
Either way, changing the ideas around birth control is going to be a slow process.
“It’s a matter of changing beliefs about gender, and especially beliefs around masculinity,” said Angus.
“If it is scientifically possible, then I see no reason for (birth control) not to be available to men, but I think it’s going to be a while before it becomes normal in this kind of culture for men to be taking care of that.”
Cover illustration by Toni Zendran.