Even our Contraceptives are Sexist

An Explanation of How Contraceptive Methods Reinforce Negative Sexist Ideals

A couple weeks ago I was sitting in my Human Sexuality class discussion and the instructor provided a powerful and informative lecture on all the different types of contraceptives that are available. As the seemingly infinite list of options grew, I became increasingly concerned about the lack of contraceptives specifically for males. It seemed as though 95% of all the avilable contraception is geared towards women. What troubled me most of all, is that the burden of family planning and preventing unwanted pregnancies thus ultimately falls on women. For the purpose of this discussion, my information will relate solely to heterosexual couples, specifically in the United States.

The following educational video from TED-Ed on contraception is similar to the lecture that I initially received which made me start pondering this issue. It also represents what I believe is the general knowledge about contraception, how it works, and the many options available.

This particular video mentions eleven different options for preventing pregnancy. These are male condoms, female condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, sponges, spermicides, pills, patches, vaginal rings, injections, and IUDs. Of these eleven options, nine or ten (depending on how you view spermicides) are geared toward women, and correct usage thereof depends entirely on women. So why is the burden of preventing pregnancies not shared equally with both men and women? Why is men’s only option the male condom? These are the questions I hope to address.

I would also like to add that the previous video mentions that women are the only ones who must endure negative side effects with their birth control methods. Men do not experience any side effects because male condoms are non-hormonal. The best contraceptive method, with a 99% effectiveness when taken correctly, is the birth control pill. The pill is a hormonal method which more often than not, has unwanted side effects. So why must women choose between negeative side effects, or a different method that may not be as effective? I believe it’s because it is the best choice available. The burden of family planning, while it may be discussed between both parties in a relationship, ultimately falls on the females majority of the time.

The end of the video announces that drug trials for a male oral contraceptive are currently ongoing. The idea of developing a male birth control pill for the near future seems hopeful, so I did some further research. In October of 2016, the Oxford Academic Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism published the details of a study on a hormonal contraceptive for men. The male subjects in this study received an injection of the hormones progestogen and testosterone (similar to the already used female combination pill which contain the hormones progestin and estrogen). The injections were intended to prevent spermatogenesis, or the production and development of sperm. As a means of preventing pregnancy and supressing sperm count, the results were promisingly positive. Only 1.5% of every 100 couples experienced a pregnancy. This rate is almost as effective as the female birth control pill is when it is used correctly. Per this specific study, the most common side effects were “acne, injection site pain, increased libido, and mood disorders.” All of these adverse effects are strikingly similar to the effects that many women experience while on the pill or other hormonal method like the implant or patch.

What I found interesting about this particular study is the reasoning for its early termination. The results state, “following the recommendation of an external safety review committee, the recruitment and hormone injections were terminated early.” I looked further to find a more detailed reasoning and all that was said was “this decision was based on RP2’s review… and conclusion that the risks to the study participants outweighed the potential benefits to the study participants.” Some participants experienced mood changes, specifically increased depression. Many women on the pill or other hormonal ethod experience the exact same emotional response to the addtional hormones. So why is it okay, sometimes even overlooked, that women can endure emotional responses to hormones, but men’s studies must be stopped when they experience the same thing?

I’m not arguing that the ultimate problem with contraception is the recognition that females carry all the responsibility. I think, especially now in 2017, that many people of all genders recognize and believe that women carry the burden. The following video shows how at least some men can recognize this unequal burden (and it also provides some comic relief).

This video was intended to explain and portray the many struggles that women experience with birth control, including the inconvenience of responsibility, various side effects, and even difficulties involving access and cost. This video was posted fairly recently, in April of 2017; so how has the recognition of an unfair, unequal responsibility in preventing pregnancy changed the science of producing a male hormonal pill?

The following link to MIT Technology Review’s story about a the progress of developing a male contraceptive was published a a few months after the initial study discussed and is more recent, posted in March of 2017.

This article seems to include more forward thinking than the previous publication mentioned. For example, Charles Easley, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia involved in this particular study, says “right now the chemical burden for contraception relies solely on the female. That’s an unfair balance in the equation.” While this recognition is a start to the change that needs to occur, it doesn’t adress the main problem. Why is it taking so long for scientists to create a functioning male oral contraceptive? This article lists some possible reasons for the delay such as, the pills cannot be tested on humans until they show promise from tests on mice, previous studies have produced profound mood changes in men, the possibility of permanently sterilizing an individual and the need to create something that’s fast-acting.

While all these setbacks may be plausible, the one thats stands out most is Charles Easley’s statement; he said, “I think there’s not much activity in this field because we have an effective solution on the female side.” I think if we’re all being honest, this is the real reason why there hasn’t been the demand that there should be for a male pill. To put it bluntly, a working solution to preventing pregnancy is already available and men see no other reason to put the burden on themselves.

The issue of contraception goes deeper than what meets the eye; it contributes to the gender power relations that are so prevalent today. By keeping the burden of family planning on the females in heterosexual relationships, and taking none of it for themselves, men are exerting their power and control. Until the unfair burden is able to be shared equally with men, they have the power to continue to place it on women.

Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate,” from October of 1978 still rings true today. Her speech, while comical, acurately demonstrates the power that men have over women. She ultimately makes the argument that menstruation is seen in a negative light and as a negative thing because women are the ones who endure it. Furthermore, if men were the ones who menstruated, it would be recognized as a positive, or as a thing of power, and women would still be seen as lesser, but because they couldn’t menstruate.

I believe the development and introduction into society of a male hormonal birth control pill would have profound effects on power relations. With it’s development, the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies would fall equally onto men and women, or at least the option to share it equally would be available. Perhaps this new kind of dynamic would translate into other aspects of life. In this kind of world, Gloria Steniem’s speech would be irrelevant.