Two weeks ago, Care2 blogger Ann Pietrangelo wrote an excellent post looking back over the history of the birth control pill, which was approved by the FDA in 1960. The fiftieth anniversary of the pill has sparked many new retrospective looks at the way that the pill changed women’s lives – although, as Ann points out, it’s difficult to know what was caused by the pill and what was simply happening at the same time.
One question still remains, though: where is the male birth control pill? Elizabeth Landau explores this issue in an article published today on CNN, although it’s definitely not a new issue – as Dr. John Amory, a researcher, points out, “The joke in the field is: The male pill’s been five to 10 years away for the last 30 years.” In researching this post, I stumbled upon several articles promising new and exciting leads – all of which seem to be duds. Landau points out that developing a male pill is more challenging because men produce far more sperm than women do eggs, and men have no periods where they shut off sperm production. Hormonal injections, though, seem to work, and certainly, we could be researching this more heavily.
Which leads us into a different realm, one that has less to do with science and more to do with demand. Landau quotes Andrea Tone, a professor at McGill, who points out that contraceptive gels and injections for men “could be very effective in preventing pregnancy, but if there isn’t a clear market for it, companies understandably are a little reluctant to invest heavily in it.” She also points out that women may mistrust men’s ability to take a pill consistently, although this may be a myth (studies have shown that most women don’t have this fear).
I think there may be another issue that Landau isn’t mentioning, though. A few days ago, I stumbled upon a post on Jezebel declaring that hormonal birth control for women does reduce sexual desire. According to the post, “Researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany studied 1,086 women, and found that those taking hormonal contraceptives were at higher risk of sexual dysfunction than those using non-hormonal or no birth control.”
This included other forms of birth control than the pill, but reveals a risk that may be much more threatening to men than to women – impotence. It’s still socially acceptable (even though perhaps not desirable) for women to have low sexual drives, but for men, virility is still closely tied to masculinity. There would be zero demand for a contraceptive that would threaten male sexual performance or desire.
It doesn’t really seem fair, though. Innumerable women can attest that the pill does not do good things for their sex drive, but we have few non-hormonal options. So instead of giving up on the male pill, maybe we should be thinking about hormonal birth control as a contraceptive, instead of period control (which is how the pill is often marketed), which would lead us to the obvious conclusion that maybe women don’t like its side effects either. Would that require a dramatic revision in the way that pharmaceutical companies advertise the pill? Yes. Would it require companies to admit that people – gasp – use the pill because they’re having sex? Absolutely. But would it help us get rid of some of the hang-ups that are preventing a male pill from being adequately researched? Maybe so.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.