In 2018 new developments in contraceptive technology were the cause of much excitement, as reports of a contraceptive injection for men dominated the headlines.
There was a sense that the conversation surrounding contraception might be changing. However, as drug trials for this drug progressed, reports of the side-effects and how they were affecting men take over the news cycle. Men reportedly complained of mood swings, acne and weight gain.
For women who have used birth control such as the pill, these side-effects will be strangely familiar. They are, in fact, the very same sorts of side effects many women experience when taking the pill, or using other methods of contraception such as hormonal implants.
Many newspapers told us that because of these side-effects, men dropped out of the drug trial, resulting in its closure. However, this was erroneous reporting. Most men were happy to continue the trial. It was the trial monitors that decided to stop the trial, because they were concerned about the side-effects men were experiencing and the medical ethics surrounding the issue. In this particular trial, 20% of men reported side-effects, which led to the monitor’s decision to shut it down.
This would be less galling but for the fact that in recent female contraceptive trials, 30% of women have reported side-effects for the trial to be stopped. It is disappointing but not surprising that the side-effects men had to suffer were viewed as intolerable, despite the fact that women have routinely experienced similar side-effects ever since the pill became widely available in the UK in the 1960s.
In a society where masculinity is often highly prized, the idea of talking about contraception methods with partners, let alone friends and peers, seems unthinkable and alien to many men. They fear that, in expressing a willingness to take such a contraceptive, or even to engage in a conversation about contraception, they will be viewed as ‘less of a man’. This hyper-masculinity leaves no space for men to engage in a conversation about contraception, much less to consider taking on the burden themselves.
Besides this, weaknesses in sex education mean that even if men wanted to discuss contraception, they don’t have the available knowledge with which to do so. In school, girls and boys are often split into separate groups to talk about the different experiences that they will undergo during puberty.
Often, men are not taught about female contraceptives, and thus feel that they have little to add on the subject. Beyond simpler and less effective methods, like condoms, men don’t feel they are in a position to discuss contraception in much depth. The onus is on women to make sure they use protection during sex, because they know more about it and they will face the ramifications of it going wrong.
It is said that a viable male contraceptive will not be readily available on the market until 2022. Despite this, it is clear that we need to re-think our understanding of contraception and our perceptions of the gender roles that are so closely associated with them in order to implement meaningful change to- day. We need to reassess our preconceptions of what contraception is, who is in a position to talk about it, and who has to make sacrifices in order to make sure sex is safe.
In order for the contraceptive methods to progress, the way we talk about contraception must progress too. And the potential consequences of sex are the responsibility of both parties.
It follows that the burden for preventing those consequences should be shared equally as well.