As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango” – but what the saying fails to mention is that only one of said tango-ers faces the physical aftermath of the dance. Also, the tango is *very* expensive and requires a commitment of at least 18 years. It’s a needy dance.
Jokes aside, ever since the birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, women have shouldered much of the emotional and practical labor of preventing pregnancy during cis-het sex. (Add it to the list of things many women proactively take care of without men even noticing.) At present, of the 65.3 percent of women aged 15-49 using contraception, 14 percent report oral contraceptive pills as their method of choice. And while options like condoms, IUDs, and the patch are also widely available, the burden of responsibility still defaults to women.
But that might be changing soon as the male birth control pill enters human trials. Here’s what to know about the current state of male birth control. Plus, what that might mean for your future relationships.
What’s the status of the male birth control pill?
The current state of male birth control is extremely limited: condoms (considered 98 percent effective with perfect use, and 85 percent effective with typical use) and vasectomies. A vasectomy is an out-patient surgical procedure that blocks or cuts the vas deferens tubes so that sperm can’t exit the testicles. While vasectomies may be reversible in some cases, the reversal procedure is expensive, and it’s doesn’t always work. So, needless to say, more birth control options for men are needed. Current research is focused on long-term, reversible birth control options for men.
Enter: the male birth control pill. Most recently, a group of researchers have been testing the effects of a non-hormonal male contraceptive on mice. The results have been promising: “When given orally to male mice for 4 weeks, [the contraceptive compound] dramatically reduced sperm counts and was 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, without any observable side effects. The mice could father pups again 4-6 weeks after they stopped receiving the compound.”
This compound is expected to go into clinical trials later in 2022. But don’t hold your breath waiting for these pills to hit the market. Best case scenario, one researcher predicts they’d be available in ten years. In the meantime, researchers are also testing a contraceptive gel for men, an injectable hydrogel, and a nonsurgical vasectomy, all with similarly long timelines. Questions are also still arising about how effective the male birth control pill would be compared to other methods.
The benefits of the male birth control pill – for women
According to Dr. Sophia Yen, MD, MPH, and founder/CEO of birth control delivery company Pandia Health, the biggest benefit is simple: women get a break.
“We don’t have to carry 100 percent of the burden of birth control, and we don’t have to suffer the side effects of birth control,” she explains.
Why might women want to stay on birth control, even if the male pill hits the market?
Even if a male birth control pill hits the market ten years from now, many women might choose to stay on the pill for a variety of reasons, notes Dr. Yen. After all, many women use birth control for non-contraceptive reasons.
“[Women may want] the option to make periods optional,” Dr. Yen explains, noting the science and safety of having fewer periods and how it decreases your risk of ovarian, endometrial, and colorectal cancers.
Similarly, women often use the pill to treat or prevent painful and/or heavy periods. In fact, Dr. Yen points out, the #1 cause of missed work and school for a woman under the age of 25 is heavy or painful periods.
And lastly, the trust between sexual partners has to be strong.
“If he messes up, the one with the uterus is the one that has to suffer the unwanted pregnancy,” Dr. Yen points out. The stakes just aren’t as high for the male responsible for taking the pill.
Until then, women must prioritize communication about contraception with partners
While we wait for the male birth control pill to be studied further, Dr. Yen urges women to take control of the conversation about their reproductive health.
“If you don’t want to be pregnant, make sure you are clear what you are using for birth control,” she advocates. “As a feminist, I advise always using a condom PLUS something hormonal (or the copper IUD) to prevent sexually transmitted infections, but also to avoid dripping secretions for the next 24 hour and to avoid upsetting the vaginal microbiome, risking bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection.”
However slow it might be, the development of male birth control options is still a promising sign for society.
“Society is realizing that it actually takes two to make a baby and that the burden of contraception should not solely reside with the one with the uterus,” concludes Dr. Yen.