The decision to have sex is an important one, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation is. Sex can be safe and fun, but it’s a big responsibility, too.
Sexually transmitted diseases are something that all sexually-active people should protect themselves against. However, for heterosexual people, sex also comes with the possibility of unplanned pregnancies.
From pills, to patches, to implants and IUDs, sexually-active women have a number of safe and effective options for preventing pregnancy based on their lifestyles and preferences.
This isn’t the case for men, whose effective birth control options are pretty much limited to condoms and vasectomies: a sometimes irreversible surgical procedure that prevents sperm from being ejaculated.
There are several reasons why men don’t have the same variety of options for birth control as women. Preventing the production of sperm in men’s bodies is more complex than preventing the release of an egg in a women’s bodies.
Dr. Kathryn Lenz, an assistant professor at the Ohio State University, discussed the biological differences between men and women and how this plays into birth control:
“Females have a monthly cycle and you basically just have to interfere with one part of that,” Dr. Lenz said. “Whereas with men, you have this constant production, so mechanistically you always have to be blocking that production.”
Women typically only release one egg during ovulation, whereas men produce millions of sperm every day. Blocking the release of a single egg is a simpler task than preventing the production of millions of sperm.
Another reason why men have less access to birth control is a lack of funding and research on the topic. Mike McNamara, a first-year at Ohio State University, echoed the absence of information available about male birth control. “I just have never heard of a way that it can be done and I don’t know if it’s possible,” McNamara said.
One study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, showed that a male equivalent to the birth control shot is, in fact, a feasible possibility.
Beginning in 2008, 320 male participants were given injections of synthetic testosterone every eight weeks. The injection was shown to be effective in decreasing participants’ sperm counts. However, the study ended early in 2012 due to adverse side effects.
These side effects included acne, pain and swelling at the injection site and, the primary reason for terminating the study, mood swings. All of these side effects are associated with many female contraceptives, although possibly to a lesser extent.
“I think older iterations of female birth control are probably stronger and some of the side effects are stronger too,” Dr. Lenz said. “But over time we’ve been able to perfect them, and there aren’t as many of those dramatic side effects.”
Another possible reason why hormonal contraceptives aren’t available for men is the disparity between the effects pregnancy has on men and women’s bodies. Pregnancy is unique to the female body, so that may motivate them to be proactive about taking birth control more so than men. Ideally, both parents would share the responsibility of having a child, but this isn’t always the case.
This isn’t to say there is a lack of interest in birth control amongst men.
“It does seem like men are increasingly interested in birth control and certainly with non-hormonal or barrier methods, like condoms, which men are very active in procuring,” Dr. Lenz said. “So they pursue birth control in that way.”
McNamara said he would consider taking a pill-form birth control if it were available.
“I wouldn’t be against it,” McNamara said. “If females have to do it then I don’t see why males should be exempt from it.”
A potential avenue for male birth control is to develop a non-hormonal method. Most types of female birth control are hormonal, but there is an exception: the copper IUD. While non-hormonal birth controls still have side effects, they tend to be more physical and less mood-oriented.
“The thing with hormones is that when you take them systematically, they have an effect all over the body.” Dr. Lenz said. “If we could come up with non-hormonal birth control for both men and women then I think we could limit those side effects.”
For anyone wanting to learn more about sex, Planned Parenthood’s website offers useful information about birth control and how to practice safe sex.