In the fall 2011 issue of Ms. Magazine, Jessica Mack skillfully details advents in male birth control. Although serious research into male contraception has been going on for more than a half century, researchers have yet to discover something analogous to “the pill” for men. Mack points to the U.S. vasectomy rate — one in six men over 35 have had the procedure — as evidence of demand. Some of the experimental methods under investigation include “a reversible vasectomy, a ‘dry orgasm’ pill, and a miracle plant from Indonesia.”
This sounds great … right?
I mean, there’s the convenience factor. If male birth control were a thing, we wouldn’t have to worry one bit about getting knocked up because of our antibiotics, and we certainly wouldn’t have to pop Plan B because of a fuckup on the part of Pfizer. And hey, if male birth control were a reality, then maybe the political jockeying between the mainly-male religious right and the socially liberal, (more) female-friendly left — on whether contraceptives should be available to all — would be a thing of the past. Healthcare sounds a lot more appealing to men — even right-wing ones — when it directly benefits them, right?
In fact, if male birth control were real, the most awkward thing we’d ever have to buy at a bodega late-night would be a box of tampons. (It’s only awk because shopkeepers, in their attempt to act totally cool and not freaked out by tampons, always wind up dropping them. Repeatedly. Same deal with prophylactics. No cycle-shame going on here.)
Anyway, if male birth control existed — and if we had miniature unicorns as pets, and if it rained morphine lollipops on the same day all the nations of the world agreed to nuclear disarmament – things would be fucking great. Sexual politics would just be, like, revolutionized. Why, male birth control would mean that men would bear as much responsibility for contraception and childbearing as women! They’d finally get it, and the patriarchy would crumble, and we’d all be equals and, ohmigosh, all that heteronormativity stuff would be suchathingofthepast.
Ha ha, psyche.
Male birth control, while great in theory, is a load of empty promises for anyone who thinks that a pill for boys has the potential to make the relationship between men and women any better — let alone elevate women’s status. While I’m totally for male contraception — and fully support any guy who wants to sow his wild oats responsibly — I’m also a realist. It could be a great backup plan, but we should never, ever let it be our primary means of birth control, unless dudes start giving birth.
Here’s why: until scenarios like Junior are more fact than fiction, pregnancy, as Mack puts it, is “a responsibility whose consequences [women] shoulder disproportionately.” At the most fundamental physical level, men are not the main stakeholders in this. It would be stupid to ignore everything we know about economics — basically, how incentive works — and assume that lesser stakeholders have as much as an interest in a particular issue as the greater stakeholders. It would be even more stupid to assume that the lesser stakeholders would alter their behavior as if they were just as interested. This isn’t a criticism of men, but a simple statement of fact: humans are guided by self-interest a lot of the time, so if self-interest does not factor prominently in a situation, people don’t care as much. This is why people often raise money for causes only after said cause affects them …
So, given that men have less incentive to care about birth control, why would we trust them fully with it — especially when the consequences of mislaid or violated trust could be so dire for us and so non-consequential for them? At least with condoms or spermicides or sponges, we can see what’s going on (and know that it’s going on) and identify pretty quickly when something’s amuck. Many men don’t trust women’s claims that they’re on birth control — and will take additional precautions to prevent becoming fathers. We should plan on doing exactly the same thing if a guy says, “Don’t worry baby, I’m on the pill,” before we wind up as moms-to-be.
Which brings me to my next point. To ignore that forced pregnancies still take place is to ignore a rare but nevertheless, real fact. This does not stem from a Dworkin-esque assumption about violence and heterosexuality. But there are some men out there who try to impregnate their partners in order to control them — they think that a woman won’t leave an abusive relationship if a child is present. To relinquish such control of our bodies obviously relinquishes our power to avoid this — however unlikely it might seem. In a similar vein, male birth control carries with it the same potential for a false sense of caution as female birth control: It’s great for what it is, but not in any way, shape, or form a mechanism to prevent disease.
A few more notes on this: I don’t think that males are going to be put-off by the idea of male birth control, as some market analyses have suggested. Although a lot of male sexual identity is tied to the idea of virility — similar to how notions of womanhood are tied to fertility — it’d be wrong to assume the worst: that most guys would get so caught up in these primal archetypes that they would just ignore really cool health technologies. However, there are places in the world where this will certainly be the case. Despite its pragmatic flaws, male birth control is a great idea and many males in the U.S. and other developed nations would jump at the chance to prevent unintended pregnancies. In countries where women are baby-making chattel, though, this probably won’t make much of a positive impact.