Male birth control reveals flaws in contraceptives

For sexually active heterosexual people, birth control is often a necessity. In an ideal world, the duty to prevent pregnancy would be shared by both parties, or at least both parties would have the option to prevent pregnancy on their end. However, the fact of the matter is that this responsibility unilaterally falls on the person who risks becoming pregnant and having a baby. Attempts to change this reality and create reversible and effective birth control for male partners have thus far been unsuccessful due to several factors.

A recent clinical trial for a new birth control shot showed promise as 220 males were given a testosterone-suppressing injection once every two months. Only four female partners were impregnated during this trial, showing the effectiveness of the new development. However, the trial was halted early due to the reported side effects of the shot, which included increased acne, muscle pain and feelings of anxiety and depression.

Sound familiar? It should, because women who use hormonal contraception have had to deal with these side effects since the first birth control pill was introduced in 1957. Because of this, various blogs and websites posted think pieces about how men are wimps and need to take some responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies. A closer look at the actual facts of this trial shows that this is an overly simplistic take-away from the study.

First of all, the health and wellbeing of people of all genders is important. We should be careful about rolling our eyes at this study just because women on birth control already experience these symptoms. Writing off the experiences of half the population does nothing for anybody and contributes to a society infected with toxic masculinity where it’s “not manly” to express emotion or to seek help. The men who dropped out of the study weren’t “giving up” or being whiny; they were taking care of themselves. It is unfortunate that this trial caused painful side effects, and I genuinely sympathize with those who felt excessive pain because of this new form of birth control.

Let’s restate the fact that women on birth control have dealt with these symptoms for years, have been expected to quietly deal with said symptoms and have not been taken seriously when they speak up about their experiences. Birth control can come with truly scary side effects (such as the onset of depression or unmanageable periods), and gaining access to it can also be difficult. These struggles are too often disregarded by both the general population and medical professionals. Women who use birth control and have problems with it are oftentimes told they’re being dramatic, or to just “get over it.”

That’s not to mention the fact that this is 2016. When women reported serious side effects during trials for the pill in the 1950s, they were ignored. As a result, the pill was approved for the general population much earlier than it should have been, unlike the recently developed testosterone-suppressing shot. Despite the large numbers of women reporting a connection between contraceptive usage and depression, no major study of this link was released until this year. There is a long history of gross injustices and apathy toward the plights of contraceptive users that continues to this day, and it is very frustrating that it takes a study centered on the voices of men to open up this conversation.

In short, it was a good thing that this particular trial was discontinued, and it is wrong to laugh at the side effects of birth control. However, when one looks at the facts, I think that only a few of the aforementioned critics are truly laughing at the pain of male trial participants. It seems to me that the anger about the trials stems from the fact that women are fed up with having their experiences dismissed, talked over or simply misunderstood. There is indeed a demand for male birth control, but right now such a thing is going to live in our imaginations while the burden continues to fall on women to prevent pregnancy. I also think that most people do recognize this injustice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for further improvement. We can do better in the way we talk about birth control and the people that use and need it. Hopefully the results of this trial will spark a conversation, and soon new developments in birth control that people of all genders can use with minor side effects will be available.

Dylan Walker ’18 (walker1@stolaf.edu) is from Mountain Grove, Mo. They major in classics with a concentration in film studies and women’s and gender studies.

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