Here's How Not to Talk About the Male Birth Control Pill

HealthIn Depth
Here's How Not to Talk About the Male Birth Control Pill
A monthly dose of hormonal birth control. Image:AP

Would you like to read an interview with a nice man who has been participating in a long overdue and quite ordinary study about male birth control pills, conducted by another man who seems to believe the participant is an utter maniac for willingly altering his sperm count and putting his very manhood in limbo? Ooh yeah, I know you do!

Adding to the seemingly endless conversation about whether the constitutions of cis men are robust enough to handle taking birth control pills at regular intervals, Aymann Ismail, host of a Slate podcast called Man Up, interviewed Rufaro Huggins, a participant in a two-year study at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in which he took a pill designed to lower sperm count. Perhaps the number-one concern in most conversations about male birth control, is whether there are side effects (since apparently decades of research on the side effects for the female birth control pill is not robust enough) so obviously Ismail leads with the query. Huggins says no, except for “a little bit of weight gain, because in the testing process of the drug you have to consume 25 grams of fat in taking it.”

What continues is a conversation about side effects that I’d be inclined to further poke fun at, if it weren’t such an apparent and distressing example of how little information is available about male oral contraceptives, partly by pharmaceutical company design, and general indifference on the part of hetero cis men when asked to alter their behavior at all.

Ismail wonders if, by ingesting the pill, his “masculinity” would be altered; Huggins counteracts that while the sperm count is lowered, “the discharge of what’s happening doesn’t change” and that “all the other pleasures and experiences that you would have would still be the same. Ismail’s misconception that altered fertility has anything to do with the construct of “masculinity” flies in the face of, again, decades of cis women taking birth control and being “feminine” just fine. His line of questioning is a depressing illustration of why these trials so rarely get off the ground: not because it’s more difficult to decrease sperm count, but because the expectation that men should do even the very least to prevent conception is treated as horrifically alien.

Huggins, who says he is “proud” “to participate in a study like this [and share] responsibility” with his partner, does a nice job of disabusing Ismail of his concerns about masculinity and sperm count regarding the pill—which he likely shares with a multitude of his peers who are, in actuality, happy to share the burden of responsibly popping a tiny pill at the same time every day. But it also brings a more realistic perspective to the constant, frustrating reports that men just don’t want to be bothered:

So is your hope that this new experimental drug will hit the market and then you can give your wife the choice to not be on birth control?
Absolutely. The side effects of the other options that are out there for women change their menstruation. So anything that would definitely improve her health and emotion and every other part of what the female body goes through, I would totally be on board for making that personal sacrifice.

Read the full interview and listen to the podcast at Slate.

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