Let’s Talk about Sex
By Emily Johnson, Staff Columnist
Published on Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Contraception hasn't changed much in the last 40 years. Since the FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960, sexually active individuals who want to prevent pregnancy without permanently terminating their ability to reproduce have had essentially three options -- abstinence, condoms, or some form of contraception ingested or inserted by women. A recent announcement from Chinese researchers, however, suggests that we could soon be adjusting to a completely changed contraception landscape, one in which hormonal forms of birth control are no longer just for women.
The researchers reported that in a 30-month study of 1,045 Chinese men, monthly testosterone injections were 98.9-percent effective in preventing pregnancies. Although more extensive studies are needed to determine whether the injections carry dangerous side effects in the long term, for the first time, male birth control seems to be a not-so-distant possibility.
The implications of male contraception are enormous, and it has the potential to completely change the way some men think about sex. Birth control currently forces women to consider the consequences of unprotected sex every time they take a pill or insert an intra-uterine device. Regularly administered contraceptives are a reminder that sex doesn't happen in a vacuum -- that there is in fact a connection between the heat of the moment and the cold, sober reality of day-to-day life. For women on birth control, sex doesn't start with foreplay and end with an orgasm -- being sexually active for these women requires action long before and after sex.
Condoms, in comparison, are part of the sexual process itself -- their use begins and ends behind closed doors, and it is therefore easy to disconnect sex from its consequences on the rest of one's life. While many men responsibly purchase condoms, which does require forethought, many others don't. For this latter group, condoms only come into the picture when sex is a sure thing.
The problem isn't that women are naturally more responsible or thoughtful than men. Rather, it is that the different forms of birth control employed by men and women cause us to approach sex differently. Contraception and safe sex practices cannot be only an afterthought with hormonal birth control.
It isn't impossible, then, that men, forced to plan ahead, might approach sex more cautiously, or at least with a more mature attitude. Taking a daily pill establishes a link between sex and responsibility that is sometimes absent for men.
There is another way in which hormonal birth control makes a clear connection between sex and daily life. Women must have a yearly gynecological exam in order to obtain a prescription for birth control. Such exams often play an important role in detecting cancer, STDs and other problems early, and they also provide a venue for learning about safe sex practices. Obtaining a prescription for male birth control could lead to an equivalent exam for men, which would likely have many of the same benefits as it does for women. Like hormonal birth control, doctor's visits also send the message that having sex should go hand in hand with responsibility, and that what happens in the bedroom doesn't always stay there.
The big question, though, is whether male birth control would ever gain traction in American society. All of the men I talked to about the subject were wary of the effects that introducing extra hormones to their bodies might have, and were generally uncomfortable with the idea, even if they couldn't articulate why. And while it might be exciting for women to be able to share the responsibility of taking hormonal contraceptives, there is also something scary about relying so heavily on someone else's ability to remember to take a pill, because it is women who will carry the burden of an unwanted pregnancy. Without widespread acceptance, male birth control might not have any powerful cultural effects -- irresponsible men might continue to use condoms procured at the last minute, while responsible men, who were already planning ahead for sex, remain the ones most likely to use hormonal birth control. At the very least, male contraception increases the number of viable contraceptive options available to a sexually active individual, which can never be a bad thing. It certainly isn't impossible, though, to imagine that male birth control could help nudge men and women onto the same page when it comes to sex and its consequences.