I. Ancient Contraception
Since ancient times, people have prevented unwanted pregnancies. Centuries ago, Chinese women drank lead and mercury, usually resulting in sterility or death. In the seventh century BCE, the plant silphium was harvested to extinction in Libya as a contraceptive. Medieval Europeans believed in the contraceptive properties of herbs, weasel testes, desiccated cat livers, and hare anuses. In South Asia, women ate papayas, a method with scientific merit due to the discovery of papain, an enzyme in papayas that prevents pregnancy (“The Birth Control Pill: A History”).
Despite the numerous female methods used, men were originally involved in contraception. Typically the head of the family, they decided when their partners would have children. Before modern medicine, the most popular contraception depended on men, such as male withdrawal and condom usage (Campo-Engelstein 147).
II. 19th and 20th Centuries
During the 19th century, motherhood became central to the ideal woman, and women’s sexual pleasure was condemned. Unfortunately, the only socially acceptable reason for women to engage in sexual activity was procreation, leading to the Comstock Act of 1873, which prohibited birth control (Gordon 10). The illegality of birth control lowered the quality and raised the price, creating business opportunities (Tone 489).
Taking advantage of 20th century feminism, shopping was advertised as part of women’s liberation, as consumers could choose what to buy. In the 1920s, women were responsible for 80% of consumer spending. The birth control industry took part in this, especially because women’s birth control was more expensive than the relatively simple male condom. Economic hardship during the Great Depression made children undesired, so the contraceptive industry flourished. In addition, birth control was a logical addition to femininity, alongside motherhood. By the late 1930s, women’s contraceptives outnumbered condom sales five to one (Tone 487).
III. The Pill
As the feminist movement grew during the mid 1900s, women wanted more control over their bodies and contraceptive decisions. Driven by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, a research team created the hormonal contraceptive pill. Side effects such as heart attack, stroke, vomiting, and blood clots were ignored because they were “regarded as hypochondria among the women in the trials.” On June 23, 1960, the FDA approved the Pill for oral contraception. By 1965, one fourth of married women in America under the age of 45 had used the pill (“The Birth Control Pill: A History”).
Although women in the 1970s thought the Pill was the “key to their liberation,” it led to the decline in male birth control, as men were no longer required to practice withdrawal or use condoms (Campo-Engelstein 147). This placed the responsibility of contraception on women, along with the side effects, expenses, and advantages that still persist today.
The Current Problem
Today, women face enormous pressure to use contraception. Birth control can have serious mental and physical side effects and is often expensive, invasive, and time consuming. A shared responsibility for birth control across genders could alleviate this burden, but there are no male contraceptive products on the market, aside from condoms (Campo-Engelstein 146).
Out of the 18 methods of birth control recognized by Planned Parenthood, only four apply to men: the male condom, vasectomy, abstinence, and pulling out. The male condom has an efficacy rate of 85% and withdrawal only 78%, while vasectomies are invasive and often non-reversible. In addition, none of these are hormonal methods, which typically have more serious side effects. In contrast, of the 15 options for women, the six most effective forms are hormonal and most have higher efficacy rates (“Birth Control.”).
In 2019, 40-45% of pregnancies worldwide were unplanned, a trend which is also true in the United States (Gava). A recent study estimated that with new male birth control, unintended pregnancies in the U.S. would decrease by 5.2% (Dorman). In 2020, the Center for Disease Control reported that there were 12.4 teen births per every 1,000 females aged 15 to 19 in California (“California”). Teen pregnancy rates in California could greatly decrease if there was male birth control.
Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies do not believe male contraception will sell because traditional gender norms portray women as primary caregivers and equate men’s worth with their sex drive and fertility. Effective male birth controls have been developed by groups like the World Health Organization, but none received enough funding to make it to pharmacy shelves, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars (Extance).
I. Don’t Abandon Current Attempts
Despite the many abandoned attempts at developing a male birth control, the Nestorone-Testosterone (NES+T) gel appears promising. It is the closest male contraceptive to the market, in phase II testing that began in June 2020. A 2012 study found that NES+T gels suppressed sperm concentration in 88.5% of the men tested and had minimal side effects. Unfortunately, the drug is not expected to reach pharmacy shelves for up to ten years (Ilani 3476). To help these trials, donate to the organizations behind them, like the Lundquist Institute, Population Council, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (“Study of Daily Application”). If you are interested in participating in the trial, you can find information and sign up here.
II. Spread Awareness
Attracting donors to male birth control requires raising awareness about men’s need for reliable contraception. Not only would birth control protect men against untrustworthy partners, it could be the reliable birth control some couples need. Many women are unable to take hormonal contraception due to side effects or pre-existing health conditions, so male birth control is a safer method of pregnancy prevention. Additionally, a common myth is that men are not interested in their own contraception. A study from the Male Contraceptive Initiative, a non-profit that raises funds for male birth controls, found that up to 80% of men in the U.S. would use a male contraceptive (Friedman). Popularizing studies like this could convince pharmaceutical companies there is a huge market for male birth control.
III. Change Gender Roles
Furthermore, women are expected to be responsible for contraception because they experience pregnancy and are often primary caregivers of children. Less media portrayal of women in domestic roles and more depictions of other genders as parental figures could lessen the pressure on women to take birth control. On an individual level, calling out men who expect women to take birth control could further the conversation around the harmful impacts of pressuring women to use contraception. If these stereotypes are challenged, larger corporations may see the market for male birth control and provide funding for clinical trials, thus alleviating part of the burden of birth control from women (Campo-Engelstein 149).
Leave a Comment
Thanks for visiting my page! If you feel comfortable, please respond to any of the following questions:
- Did you ever discuss birth control in a health or sex ed class? What types did you learn about?
- Do you think men should play a larger role in contraception? Why or why not?
- If you identify as a man, would you be willing to take hormonal birth control? Why or why not?
- If you identify as a woman, would you trust your partner to take birth control? Would this be different for a committed or casual relationship?
- Learn more about different types of birth control
- Find information about participating in the NES+T clinical trials
- Read more about the history of women’s birth control in America
- Read more on the current problem and proposed solutions