Double standards, not science, are holding back the male pill

Acne, soreness, and mood swings. These are some of the side effects of the recently trialled contraceptive for men. They are also some of the side effects experienced by women who use birth control. Only the latter is publicly available.

The trial comprised 320 men in ten different locations worldwide who received injections to reduce sperm count. And while it looked like maybe this trial was onto something, the hope was short-lived as some of its participants found the side effects too much to handle. To be exact, 20 of the 320 dropped out.

I don’t blame those who left the trial as I don’t know how they were feeling. Many women stop using hormonal birth control as they simply can’t deal with the side effects. So I don’t blame them, but to halt the trial completely because around 6% of men discontinued their involvement seems unreasonable – especially when some of the participants expressed disappointment they would stop receiving the injections. Just over 80% of male participants indicated they would be happy to use them as a method of contraception.

Halt the trial because some men experienced some of the side effects women do? Sounds like there is a different standard when it comes to men’s quality of life versus women’s.

This idea is historically embedded. While there are issues and complications in many medical trials, the development of the female pill was not a pretty path.

In some ways, birth control revolutionised female sexuality and put women in control when preventing pregnancy; this being the main reason why many women in Puerto Rico jumped at the opportunity to protect themselves from pregnancy during the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Chicago Tribune reported on this back in 2004, detailing how these women were used as “guinea pigs” to develop today’s pill. Back then, these women were unaware that the drug they were putting into their bodies was still in its testing phase. They probably didn’t know that one of the reasons research had been moved from American cities such as Boston to Puerto Rico was because of the side effects experienced, either. Sounds familiar.

During this time the pill contained three times the hormone levels as what is currently available. The Tribune adds that in the early days of testing, doctors publicly noted that two women who were seemingly healthy died while participating. No autopsies were done to confirm this, however.

Despite this, the development of the pill continued.

Women carried the burden of responsibility for contraception and childbirth long before the pill existed, and with its advent have more control over the outcome but bear no less responsibility for it. It is simply unfair.

Today, men can choose between a vasectomy, which is possibly permanent; the pull-out method, and we all know how silly that is; or wearing a condom, something many deem too uncomfortable and which has probably resulted in fewer men using them.

I understand that condoms can cause comfort issues, and sometimes affect erectile dysfunction. It sucks that condoms are uncomfortable but it also sucks to have an IUD, a form of birth control that is shoved up your vagina; or being on your period for weeks on end as your body adjusts to the hormonal changes brought on by the pill. It’s not pretty and both sexes know it.

So why does it seem much more acceptable to ditch the condom than any other kind of birth control? Why aren’t both parties put through the ringer equally? One reason for this is societal standards. The other? Money.

Big pharmaceutical companies don’t see male contraception as a viable investment. “They’ve made the decision the value is not there for them,” said Professor Robert McLachlan, who worked on the latest trial. McLachlan believes that birth control for men might never come, or is at least 20 years away.

The makeup of the industry is also likely to have something to do with it. A 2014 survey found that despite the industry having a predominantly female workforce, male chief pharmacists across England outnumbered women 65:35. A 2005 report notes that the industry is largely controlled by middle-aged men.

Richard Anderson, a professor of reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh, points to non-scientific barriers holding back the development of male contraception. “Getting male fertility down to acceptable levels is difficult but not impossible, and there have been many years of experience of how to do that,” he said. “What the field has really lacked is a champion with lots of money and enthusiasm. Thereafter you get industrial involvement.”

“At board level it was only middle-aged white males,” Herjan Coelingh Bennink, a former global executive vice president of Dutch pharma company Organon’s reproductive medicine programme, said in regard to a 2003-2004 trial. “It was not considered male behaviour to take responsibility for contraception.” This still rings true today.

It’s frustrating. It’s so incredibly annoying that this research is unable to finish what it started; that pharma companies aren’t taking a risk that could benefit both women and men.

Which is of course nothing new. It’s not like male contraception hasn’t been discussed and rejected before. Hormonal birth control tests were being done on men all the way back in the fifties. Various other methods have been researched since.

In 1972 there were trials where a group of men were given gossypol pills to reduce sperm count. While it looked promising, human testing was discontinued, a key problem being that once some of the men stopped taking the drug their sperm levels didn’t return to normal. Conclusions drawn from a 1986 symposium in China, of which the World Health Organization (WHO) was a sponsor, named gossypol to be “of little interest.”

It’s society that puts the responsibility of birth control on women. We have for so long accepted that this is just the way it’s supposed to be. Men have unfairly taken a backseat while demanding a superior quality of health. That is why some feel they can skip the condom and instead expect their female partner to provide adequate protection.

Things need to change. There is simply nothing out there for men that compares to the precautions women have to take. And there should be.

I’m not saying let’s go with the first thing we find and hope for the best – I don’t want a repeat of what happened to those women in Puerto Rico. But this research should continue, with the key word here being research. How are we ever supposed to get anywhere if we simply toss what we’ve done aside and declare it unsuccessful at the first obstacle? These side effects are legitimate and it’s completely understandable if people can’t deal with them, but women have faced them for decades and will continue to until something is done about it. Now that the option to take contraception might stretch to men, it’s somehow deemed inhumane.


Linnéa is a serial ranter. These rants mostly consist of the importance of feminism, veganism and puppies. She loves to write and is obsessed with her tortoise, Terrence.