Condoms are a Girl’s Best Friend?

Trojan is trying to get women to buy condoms. The way they are doing this is to market condoms in a “discreet travel pack.”Replacing the packaging with a black, stylish pattern that has more in common with they way maxi-pads are wrapped than with the garish shiny colors and brandnames that usually come with the condom territory.

It’s a good thing, right? Women shouldn’t be ashamed to carry condoms,anymore than they should they be afraid to ask their partners to use them. So encouraging women (who only buy about one-third of condoms in the US) to have their own supply is surely a good thing.

However, it is still perturbing that in 2017 there are still no viable male-controlled forms of birth control other than condoms (a clunky barrier method that nobody really likes) or vasectomy (a permanent method that is, well, permanent).

Many years ago when I lived in Seattle, I took a temp job as the administrative assistant for Dr. William Bremner, who was then the Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington. The job was dull and involved making photocopies and coffee and filing and all the rest, and I was not particularly good at it. The main thing that I remember about that job was eating my lunch outside while worrying about how W was stealing the election,  and the fact that Dr. Bremner was working on developing a male contraceptive pill.

Twenty years later, W is an artist, and the male contraceptive pill is nowhere to be seen. There are dozens of female contraceptive methods: various forms of IUDs and other implants, a patch, a pill, an injectable. There is emergency contraception anda contraceptive film that you can insert in your vagina (though apparently it tastes terrible). There is regular spermicide, and female condoms, there are foams and gels and diaphragms and the cervical cap and the Nuvaring.

The options for male controlled forms of birth control are miserly in comparison and remain the same as they have been since the mid 1880s: condoms or vasectomy. This week, an article published in Basic and Clinical Andrology showed that Vasalgel, a male contraceptive gel that acts as a barrier once it is injected into the tubes that sperm swim down to the penis, has been proven safe and effective in primates.

However, according to a report published on the BBC website, primary investigator Alan Pacey says that there has been very little commercial interest from pharmaceutical companies in male contraception and that his research team is considering turning to crowdfunding to obtain the financial support needed to continue the research. Given the current political climate, where women’s ability to be trusted with the responsibility of family planning is under scrutiny, one would think that the possible development of male contraceptive option would be greeted with cheering in the streets.

It is worth reflecting on this state of affairs in the current political climate where women’s reproductive health is under fire both nationally and on a global level. If, as the subtext goes, women are not to be trusted with their own bodies, then perhaps the flipside should be that only men can be trusted to be responsible users of birth control technologies. If men could control whether or not they wanted to reproduce, without having to rely on condoms or the very permanent solution of vasectomy, wouldn’t this be a positive thing?

The male contraceptive conundrum reveals, once again, what is really at the heart of this argument about abortion and birth control: the deification of male sexuality. The dominant cultural narrative about masculinity tells us that men will refuse to have a gel injected into their private parts, nor can they really be trusted to take a pill every day, but surely does not play out in the real world, where many men would be happy to be active participants in planning their families without having to resort to an all or nothing option.

Perhaps one day there will be a viable male contraceptive option. Until then, there is XOXO.

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