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Won’t Somebody Think of the Men?

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 27, 2010 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | July 27, 2010 |

I realize that these columns have skewed heavily toward female issues so far. It’s not that I don’t care about your sexuality, gentlemen. It’s just that most of the sex researchers out there don’t. Scientists solved the problem of erectile dysfunction, and then kinda lost interest in men’s sexual issues (unless they’re having sex with other men, in which case researchers cannot seem to get enough information). While scientists are busy trying to figure out how female arousal and orgasm works, and whether we women are deliberately manipulating men with our vocalizations, men are just assumed to be simple creatures — sexually speaking — who don’t need much figuring out. There is, however, one area of research focused on men that’s hot right now: how to stop your swimmers from accomplishing their goal of meeting and fertilizing an egg. The male birth control pill has been much talked about, but until recently it’s been largely hypothetical. That may change in a few years thanks to two new promising approaches to the problem.

A reliable, short-term method of male birth control is long overdue. Placing the burden of birth control entirely on one sex isn’t fair to anyone. Female birth control pills often have unwanted side effects, such as loss of sex drive and mood swings, and can cause severe health problems for some women. At the same time, ceding control of reproductive responsibility to someone else is not exactly ideal for men either. One of the main arguments against the need for a male birth control pill is that women wouldn’t be able to trust men to take it, and while it’s true the stakes are higher for women when it comes to unwanted pregnancy, it’s awfully reductive (and offensive) to assume that women are always responsible and men always aren’t. I know a lot of men who use the pull out method as a secondary form of birth control so that they can feel they have at least some measure of control or because their partners are unable or unwilling to use the pill - I’m sure many of those men would be willing to use more reliable forms of birth control if they were available to them. (The pull out method, by the way, is actually 96% effective at preventing pregnancy when done correctly, although that number drops to 73% for incorrect use, so until the man-pill does become available, it’s not a bad idea.) Just because they aren’t the ones that will be pregnant doesn’t mean that men don’t care to do anything to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Ideally, both men and women would have the option to take steps to prevent pregnancies and couples would be able to decide what form works best for them.

Fortunately, we may finally be approaching a solution to the problem of male birth control, and the options being developed have fewer side effects and last longer than the female pill. One of those options is the “Bright pill.” Developed in the lab of Prof. Haim Breitbart of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, the Bright pill works by turning off protein production in sperm, rendering them unable to survive in the uterus long enough to fertilize an egg. In mice, two treatments taken 48 hours apart were shown to cause sterility for one to three months, depending on the dose. The pill did not appear to have any effect on the mice’s sex drives or to otherwise cause any negative side effects. Breitbart claims the pill only targets sperm cells, and therefore it is unlikely to have any of the unpleasant side effects associated with the female birth control pill (The lack of side effects is considered a big deal in the male bc world because men are, of course, big babies who could never put up with the same sort of negative effects from birth control that women have to deal with). The need to use it only once every few months is being touted as an additional advantage, since men wouldn’t need to remember to take a pill every single day (although personally, I’m pretty sure I would never remember what day I was supposed to take my next pill if I had to take them months apart).

Of course, human trials are needed before we’ll know for sure how effective and safe the Bright pill is, but even if it proves unworkable in people, there’s always another technique being developed by James Tsutura and Paul Dayton at the University of North Carolina, which uses ultrasound blasts to the testes to turn off sperm production, leaving the man without sperm reserves and rendering him temporarily infertile. This technique has also only been done in animal models so far, but has been shown to lead to sterility in rats for as long as six weeks, although the researchers hope the effects could be extended for up to six months. Like the Bright pill, there are no expected side effects and the treatment could be stopped at any time the men wanted to resume fertility. The only obvious downside is that the treatment would have to be administered in a doctor’s office, and that (in the words if Tsurata), “in people the testes would be in a little cup of water, or another liquid that ultrasound can be transmitted through.” I don’t have testes myself, but that sounds kind of awkward to me (“Here Mr. Jones, just put your balls in this cup and we’ll give them a quick zap”). On the other hand, a few minutes of awkwardness is probably a small price to pay for six months of birth control, assuming the procedure does turn out to be effective and safe in humans. Especially when you consider all the unpleasant side effects many women deal with for the same purpose.

Both sets of researchers are planning on beginning human trials soon, so we should have an answer as to whether these techniques are effective in humans in a few years. Hopefully once researchers have figured out how to control male fertility they’ll turn their attention to a form of birth control for women that is equally low in side effects.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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