Locker room bluster? No thanks. This high school student wants to hear what you really think.
Last summer high school junior William Trinh landed a coveted internship funded by the National Institutes of Health. He showed up at the University of Washington expecting to spend a couple of months peering into a microscope, but that wasn’t the kind of help his lab needed. The research team, under Dr. William Bremner, was working on birth control for men—and what they needed most was help figuring out whether the time is right for this project, and if so how best to talk about it. Could Trinh, a soft-spoken first-generation Vietnamese American, ask his buddies what they thought?
Trinh reached out, but his buddies weren’t having it—the conversation, that is. They weren’t ready for even the kind of “locker room” bluster that teens often spout when their interest in sex first emerges, let alone candid conversation about contraception. So Trinh turned to a familiar hangout, Reddit, where he got an earful of both.
Would you buy (or use) a male pill? Who should be responsible for family planning? Who needs it more, males or females? Trinh asked questions along these lines, and over the course of two days, more than 150 responses poured in. Most were awkward, coarsely humorous, or tangential—interesting to Bremner’s team only in that they showed a high level of discomfort with the topic. But among the fifty folks who answered seriously, three quarters said they were ready to try a male pill. In fact, several said that male birth control is a long overdue part of gender equality.
Why would men want their own birth control when their female partners can get easy, forgettable state-of-the-art implants and IUDs that last for years and drop the yearly pregnancy rate below 1 in 500?
Partnership. Some men want to take a burden off of a wife or girlfriend, either the hassle of side effects or the responsibility of remembering—which several acknowledged would be a challenge if it meant taking a pill at the same time every day.
- “My GF needs medication so along with BC fucking up her hormones they also fuck up her medication. So birth control for a guy would be great.”
- “Some girls seem to go a bit weird after birth control pills, so if it would not affect me any, sure why not. Totally easier and I could save those girls from unpleasantness. Win Win.”
- “If it takes BOTH parties to create a zygote, why should the responsibility fall on just ONE?”
Self-Protection. Many men don’t trust female partners to be 100 percent reliable (or even honest) about taking the pill. In fact, this emerged as one of the biggest themes. With so much at stake, nagging worry about an unwanted pregnancy followed by years of entanglement can make sex feel like a minefield.
- “Men have few methods of protecting themselves from a 20+ year obligation.”
- “Child support is no joke. In a life situation where I wasn’t planning on getting a girl pregnant I would take birth control religiously.”
- “I’ve had girlfriends that were extremely irresponsible about their pills and it drove me nuts. I seriously considered a vasectomy for a while, but apparently there’s a chance that once it’s been done it can’t be properly undone.”
- “The amount of times I’ve heard of chicks breaking condoms intentionally or lying about not being on birth control is fucking scary.”
- “[This] girl said she was on birth control; her friend she was living with at the time told me she wasn’t and had never been on birth control; did not do the deed and never spoke to either of them again.”
- “I personally know two women who have intentionally gotten pregnant to 1) keep a guy around and 2) get money out of him.”
- “A very close friend of mine has had it happen twice. One told him she was on BC and the other was putting pin holes in the condoms. In both cases they attempted to claim they were pregnant and he was the father. The funny thing, at least to me, is that he does not use condoms for birth control, he uses them for STI control. He had a vasectomy several years ago.”
- “As a guy who had unprotected sex with a former partner recently, yes. She waited until the deed was done and seed was spread to casually mention ‘oh by the way, I’m off my birth control.’”
- “A common scenario I imagine is that you think your relationship is heading for the rocks but she’s clearly in this for the long haul. You can’t just start using condoms and you can’t be sure she takes the pill every day.”
Better sex. Yes, guys can use condoms, but even those who do often want better options.
- “Guys don’t wear condoms because they are a pain in the ass . . . due to the work involved at the height of passion.”
- “Honestly in the heat of the moment I didn’t always use them.”
- “It will make the foreplay so much better with your SO. You don’t have to stop in the middle of the foreplay to get a condom.”
- “Broke through too many condoms and don’t wanna take another chance.”
- “No more paranoia about condom holes or her ‘missing a day’.”
Autonomy. In this light, better options can seem like a matter of personal independence.
- “It would be nice to be able to take that decision as a male for sure.”
- “Each person should be responsible for themselves…”
- “Considering how many posts on /relationship advice are things like ‘I got this crazy girl pregnant what should I do?!?!’ yeah, I think it’s a good idea.”
- “I despise being reliant on others when I can take charge and be sure everything is within my control.”
Fewer unwanted kids. Since all methods of birth control are imperfect, some point out that both partners managing their own fertility would decrease accidental pregnancy, which would be good for kids and society as well.
- “Doubling up the protection against unwanted pregnancy is great in my books.”
- “That combined with my wife’s birth control would make me feel a lot better about not having any kids right now.”
- “Now there would be the effect of a ‘double safety net’ if you will. So at least if she forgot, and I didn’t we’re 1/2 way safe.”
- “I think unwanted pregnancies would drop drastically if I could willingly tame the contents of my sac.”
- “Abortion is not an option for many, so we have a kid with an unprepared or unfit mother (or mother + father if the dad chooses to hang around), or another kid making the stressful rounds of foster care.”
- “There’s too many people on this planet. The more birth control the better.”
Not All Men
Some guys expressed reluctance or said they wouldn’t consider using a male birth control method. More than a few voiced one or another version of “Ow, My Balls”—a general squeamishness about anything messing with their reproductive tract, especially something they likened to a scalpel or needle or “caulk gun.” But others raised concerns more akin to those of woman using oral contraceptives. What happens to sperm that aren’t made or released? Might a contraceptive be carcinogenic? Will I get man boobs? Will it affect my future fertility? Will STI’s increase if people have better options for preventing pregnancy? Several respondents said they would watch the first wave of early adopters cautiously, while others reminded them that a surprise pregnancy brings its own set of “side effects.”
If concerns like these can be addressed, many observed that male birth control just makes sense. One popular phrase—dubbed “the most American” way to sum up the issue—showed up in different forms nine times:
“Better to unload the gun than shoot at a bulletproof vest.”
Our Bodies, Our Selves
It should come as no surprise that attitudes about a male birth control pill vary, as do attitudes about every form of new technology and especially body modification. Even so, research consistently shows that many men want better birth control options. If there was a broad point of convergence in Trinh’s research, it was this:
Birth control may be a matter of responsibility but it’s also a matter of empowerment—the freedom to live on your own terms. Just like women, guys want to become parents when they feel ready, and not before, and they want to pick their long- term parenting partners rather than roll a dice. Nobody wants to end up as a parent because of being manipulated or deceived or because technology failed or options are limited. People want to be in charge of their own lives. And since women get the final say in abortion decisions, guys have all the more stake in prevention—in making sure that eggs and sperm don’t hook up when they do.
The Wave of the Future?
At the end of the summer, William Trinh flew to Bethesda, Maryland, where he would present his research to staff at the National Institutes of Health and other high school interns from across the country. He feared they might find his project dull by contrast with laboratory research done by other students. But the opposite was true, and he found himself fielding questions from peers and professionals alike. Trinh left buzzing with ideas. He called Dr. Bremner, and this time Trinh was the one suggesting more research. If he has his way, come June his buddies will be facing a second round of questions about what young men want when it comes to birth control options. And if they’re ready to answer, folks will be listening.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.