Jawhari: Sticking it to the man

Male birth control makes its belated debut

Carl Djerassi, known as the father of the modern female birth control pill, wrote in the New York Review of Books last year that the invention “separated [sex] from its reproductive consequences.” Several years before the pill was approved for contraceptive use in the United States in 1960, Djerassi had already synthesized a progesterone pill from wild yams in Mexico City. He would play a crucial role in producing what millions of women now use today.

As women, the ‘consequences’ are ours. We have historically been the responsible party when it comes to birth control (Note the term ‘birth control,’ not ‘conception control’ or ‘fertilization control,’ which would suggest two players instead of one. The pill doesn’t even prevent birth, it prevents all events leading up to it). At the advent of the pill, women were overjoyed to take charge of their reproductive health. It revolutionized the sex arena for men and women alike, giving would-be unprepared mothers the option to stay effectively childfree if so desired.

Yet what was revolutionary in the 60s no longer rattles cages today. Women remain the responsible party because we get pregnant (Aren’t you using birth control?), because we get raped (What were you were wearing when you went out?), because society plays the shame game when it comes to pregnancy but will often refuse a woman’s sole responsibility when she seeks birth control or an abortion (a 48-hour waiting period, a note from parents if the woman is 17, other mandatory circus hoops). Some men will complain that they don’t like the feel of the condom while simultaneously expecting their partners to ingest a hormonal regimen, her comfort or safety aside.

This is not to say that the pill isn’t a worthwhile option for birth control, or that other options created specifically for women—such as intrauterine devices, female condoms, and cervical caps, to name a few—are oppressive. On the contrary, providing a varied selection is both practical and empowering. But the fact remains that women are the central participants, the primary targets. And ‘birth’ control remains just that: in which to give birth, to conceive and to fertilize all remain permanent verbs and “woman” remains both the subject and direct object of these acts.

What makes the focus on female responsibility especially infuriating from a biological perspective is that our bodies are naturally complex. Our system is a series of tubes, chambers, delicate hormonal interplay and a cycle that few can predict accurately, all ending in bright red avec cramps. The male system has no such fragilities; sperm are mass-produced and stored, and both urine and semen exit through the same external tunnel. From this perspective strictly, the male body is easier to control and such control would pose fewer risks. This is perhaps why many early civilizations document the use of animal intestines and other materials as condoms. Male systems are just more (ahem) straightforward.

The science community knows so. Vasalgel, a non-hormonal, reversible polymer that blocks sperm in the vas deferens, is finally entering its human trials after proving efficacy in a baboon study. Vasalgel does not alter male hormones; it only requires one treatment in order to be effective for an extended period of time, and effects are totally reversible. Whenever the man wants his powers of human creation back, another injection is given to flush out the initial polymer.

Sound a lot safer than popping a daily hormone pill, or having a foreign device implanted in your body? More comfortable than gloving before loving? That’s because it is. The side effects of hormonal therapy for women are numerous and well documented, some life threatening. Put simply, why climb a mountain barefoot through jagged cliffs, when you can take a flat paved road in a car?

The arrival of male birth control not only removes the burden, blame and dangers specific to women, but at last introduces equality between the sheets. It is well overdue. With Vasalgel anticipated to be available on the market in 2017—almost 60 years since the pill made its debut—men will be expected to play just as responsible a role as women when it comes to Djerassi’s ‘reproductive consequences.’

Sarah Jawhari is a biweekly columnist for The Observer.