Low Expectations and Male Birth Control

Men need more birth control options, not negative assumptions and ugly stereotypes.
Since I can remember, we ("we" meaning the great collective of copulating Americans) have been promised that a male birth control pill is right around the corner. And for as long as I can remember, the lack of this pill on the market has caused a share of finger-pointing. It's understood that it's possible to develop such a pill, but not much incentive to provide the research money, because it's believed that men aren't interested in a birth control pill. To understand why men might not be that eager to take a birth control pill, we're left with a set of generalizations and stereotypes, many of which are unfair to a large percentage of men:

  • Men think that only women can get pregnant, so unwanted pregnancy is a woman-only problem. This might be true for some men, but for a lot of men, probably most, the fear of an unwanted pregnancy haunts them as much as it does women. And unlike women, men lose control over the situation as soon as they get up out of bed. Good, decent men accept that this is only fair, but it does raise their incentives to make absolutely sure that it's taken care of ahead of time.

  • Men exploit their privilege over women and assume that women should burden all the expense and risk and discomfort of contraception. In some cases, again, this is true enough. There are guys out there who automatically assume that women should be on the pill, even if any individual woman's body can't handle the effects of it. But to say that men don't have any relationship to sacrifice when it comes to contraception is to ignore the proliferation of the humble condom. Many, many men have embraced their duty to both buy and wear condoms, even if they feel it would be more fun to go without. If you could find a pill that was even less trouble than condoms, some of these men would probably snatch it up. Is that a market enough to put up money for research and development? Well, I'd ask Trojan, see if they've been making any money lately. (Answer: yes.)

  • Men are careless idiots who can't be trusted to do anything right, and so it's pointless making something that requires them to keep a schedule. Ever notice how this sitcom stereotype doesn't stretch to include the main part of the day where both men and women have to be on the ball, keep their appointments, and just generally display responsibility? You know, work? We expect men to show up at their jobs every day on time and perform their responsibilities competently. But for some reason ("some" meaning sexism), the expectation that men be able to handle even simple domestic responsibilities like chores or contraception is deemed too much by many.

Well, I'm not having it. Many men are perfectly competent at swallowing a pill every day on time, and plenty of them have partners who trust them to do it. No reason to employ the soft bigotry of low expectations in this case.

Not that any of this means that I don't agree that the market for a male birth control pill might be small, but I don't think we have to slam men to arrive at that conclusion. No, I think it's that the burden of contraception use can already be evenly distributed between men and women in a huge percentage of cases, and that removes the need for a male birth control pill.

Here's the scenario that a number of men I've known have basically laid out for themselves with varying degrees of success: You're young and casually dating. During the periods of casual dating, you stick to condoms as contraception, so it's on you. If you get involved long-term with a woman, and you're both disease-free, you switch to pills. Go back and forth until you meet and settle down with your permanent partner. You have a couple of kids, or don't, but either way, you have no need for further fertility. At which point, you get a vasectomy.

In that scenario, men actually carry a fair share of the contraceptive burden already. Female sterilization is still more popular than vasectomy in this country, reflecting a widespread belief that even if it's more trouble for a woman to do so, the burden for birth control is solely on her shoulders. But a large number of men opt for vasectomy every year, realizing that if you consider the contraception burden a shared one, vasectomy is usually a better choice than tubal ligation, because it's more effective, easier, and simpler to recover from. I'm assuming that the market for the male birth control pill would be the market that's already interested in taking on the sterilization burden for equality's sake. In other words, vasectomy might have created a market saturation that works against a male birth control pill.

While I support the idea of more effective options for everyone, maybe it's best to see the non-emergence of a male birth control pill as an opportunity to reassess what men really need to be equal players with women in the responsibility game. Men who already believe that they should share the burden are wearing condoms and getting vasectomies. It would be nice to see those guys have other options, but at this point, I think the main priority is convincing more men to follow that good example.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon.
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