Photo: Rekha Garton
At long last, it looks like male birth control is finally coming. Only, contrary to popular expectations, it’s not a male pill (which is still being developed), but an injection called Vasalgel.
Vasalgel, brainchild of the Parsemus Foundation, is a non-hormonal gel that's injected just above the testicles. It works by temporarily blocking sperm from flowing through the tubes, just like a vasectomy. The only difference? This one is reversible.
So far, it's only been tested on baboons and rabbits. But the results have been positive and it looks like they might be similar when the injection is tested on humans next year.
It means we could have a new birth control option in 2017: just for men.
But will it actually work? And I don’t mean scientifically – I mean socially. Will we ever get to a point where women, who have borne the contraceptive burden for decades, trust men to take control? And will men even want to?
Men? Too squeamish
Donna Dawson, a psychologist specialising in behaviour, is convinced no man will want to do it.
“I don’t think men will opt for it,” she says firmly. “They’ll either say it’s the women’s job, or they’ll be too squeamish. They’re not used to taking that amount of responsibility for birth control. They don’t have the pain threshold women have.
“Women are more conditioned and acclimatised to taking birth control. Men have had no experience of it. Most men won’t even have the snip, making most women have their tubes tied instead.”
It’s a pretty strong ‘no’ from someone who specialises in studying the way we work. But, what do men themselves have to say?
I ask Matt, the most stereotypically 'blokey' guy I know. To my surprise, he tells me: “I would do it, as long as there were no side effects or permanent issues (e.g. sterilisation).”
So, he wouldn’t mind about having the 20-minute procedure, or the injection in such a delicate place?
'I guess I would...'
“I don't like needles and people touching my balls. It’s a very sensitive area for guys, so anyone fiddling around down there is always an issue. But my main problem would be if something went wrong. I also would prefer to just be able to take a pill.”
He might be squeamish, but he does recognise that it would be beneficial for his girlfriend, who reluctantly takes the Pill.
“I guess I wouldn’t mind taking the whole responsibility,” he says. “I think it gives couples more options because I wouldn't get the snip unless I had already done my dash with kids.”
Another 20-something, John, says: “Anything that involves not ripping open the Durex is a win," he says. "But I would be really wary of being one of the first few people to do it because I'd be terrified that it wouldn't work and would mess your balls, or hormones, up in some way. You'd have to be pretty sure it was safe".
He is sceptical on one point.
“I'm not sure girls would be like "ok that's fine" if you tell them you've had an injection. Men are probably more likely to lie about that than girls on the pill, just so that we don't have to use condoms.”
Girls: it's a trust issue
This seems to be the biggest issue. When I ask our Twitter followers what they think, every woman is in favour of male birth control – except for those niggling doubts.
@TeleWonderWomen I would totally get my husband to do it. Whether he would, that's another thing altogether— Susanne Courtney (@MrsSoose) September 11, 2014
@TeleWonderWomen Hell yes! Can't understand why any woman wouldn't want them to. It's about time men took some responsibility for that too— Georgina Fuller (@GeorgieR30) September 11, 2014
@TeleWonderWomen I got an IUD because I was worried I'd forget to take the pill. If I don't trust myself I wouldn't trust anyone else...— Beulah Maud Devaney (@TheNotoriousBMD) September 11, 2014
A friend, Parvati, sums it up when she says: “It would be SO good if we had male birth control, but there are trust issues. It's unfair that birth control is a woman's responsibility and can often make women feel punished for enjoying sex, while men can have sex with no strings. Women bear the burden.
“The only drawback is whether women would feel comfortable trusting men to tell the truth about whether they had used the birth control. That said, we've managed the other way round for years.”
@TeleWonderWomen I hate to say it, but I'd be so anxious about trusting a guy to take the Pill.— Daisy Buchanan (@NotRollergirl) September 11, 2014
It's unfair on women
I put it to Professor John Guillebaud, an emeritus professor of reproductive health at UCL and a contraception expert who’s working on developing a male pill.
“As a choice it’s been very unfair on women really,” he says. “In stable couples, where they share their bodies together, why shouldn’t they also share any problems, or risks involved, by six months of the man taking contraception, then six months of the woman?”
To that end, Professor Guillebaud is working with experts to develop a 'clean sheets pill' designed to prevent semen from being released (and also reducing the chances of HIV transmission). He expects it to be available inaround in about 10 years time, along with other alternatives (such as a 'standard' male pill).
Of course, having six months on and off would only work for something like a pill and not for Vasalgel, which takes three months to be fully effective.
Professor Guillebaud does say, though, that a contraceptive injection might rule out some of the potential trust issues.
“I think women would trust it better because it’s a one-off procedure. After the negative sperm count at three months, nothing more would need to be done by the (possibly forgetful) man. It’s unlike a pill which needs to be taken daily."
He says that women could end up trusting a man who has had a Vasalgel injection in the way they’d trust a partner who’d had a vasectomy.
Choice is key
Of course, there will be men - like Matt - who are reluctant to have what they might view as an invasive procedure and would be more open to simply swallowing a pill.
And this is what it all comes down to – choice. At the moment there are 15 types of contraception for women and none for men, bar condoms. And, regardless of what we might think, some men are keen for this to change.
A 31-year-old man who didn't want to be named, tells me: "I think it'll be good when men have that choice available to them. I know that the Pill can have some pretty unpleasant side-effects for some women, so it is a good thing for a man to show that he can take the lead and be responsible."
Having Vasalgel, or a ‘male pill’, would give them an opportunity to do just that.
But having both? Well that's a future worth waiting for.