Birth control is usually seen as something women take. But, scientists are trialling new forms of male contraception. They are hoping for new forms to hit the market and for men to take responsibility over their sex lives.
In 2019, James Owers, then 29 and his girlfriend Deena Bardsley, then 27, came across a BBC online news story. They read that researchers were looking for volunteers to take part in a two-year study. This would be to trial a male contraceptive gel trial, starting in June that year. This was to be their sole form of birth control.
Why James took part in the trial
James decided to take part in the male contraceptive gel trial to take control over his future. He said: “The burden of contraception is taken on by women and I want there to be more options for men so that they can take responsibility. It would be good for men to step up and take some of that burden. It’s easy for people to say, ‘well there isn’t really an option for me’ but I personally would like that excuse to go away.”
“The burden of contraception is taken on by women and I want there to be more options for men so that they can take responsibility.”
A survey by Hard Pill to Swallow in 2020 found that 17% of men believe that contraception is for females only. However, that same survey also found that 83% of men would take a form of male contraception.
Much like female birth control, the participants had to remember to apply the gel once a day. They had to apply this to their upper arms and shoulders. Whilst also attending hospital appointments to monitor their sperm count for the first year. The wives and girlfriends of the men taking part had to come off their birth control for the male gel to work effectively and produce accurate results.
Recognised scientifically as NES/T, the hormone-based gel is designed to not affect the man’s libido. It was developed by the Population Council and the NICHD (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development). The trial is part of an international project. It’s funded by the US National Institute of Health and led by the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine. In total, the trial aimed to have 450 couples across the world using the gel.
Now 31, James is finishing off his computer science PhD in Edinburgh whilst working as a data scientist. Throughout the first year of the trial, James had to use the contraceptive gel and attend clinics to monitor his sperm count decreasing. Now, the final phase of the trial is for all the participants to stop using the gel. Researchers now monitor their sperm count increasing, which they assured would happen.
The side effects of contraception
James had already prepared himself before the trial for the side effects he may encounter. For the most part, they would be similar to what women experience. He said: “The most prominent thing was that I got a lot more hot and sweaty. This has noticeably decreased since I’ve stopped using the gel. But I’ll be honest, it didn’t really bother me that much. The other side effect was definitely an increased sex drive which was positive and negative at different times. I also had acne on my back, but I barely noticed, and I gained a little bit of weight.”
When asked to comment on James’ increased sex drive, Richard Anderson, a professor of clinical reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the study in the city, said: “Different couples have different experiences [with the gel]. So I wouldn’t say James is an anomaly, but this [increased sex drive] isn’t a widespread finding either. However, the trial is still ongoing.
“As a widely based contraceptive, it may take a while to become available. It will be years – if ever. New medicines need large phase three trials before they can be licensed.”
Throughout his journey, James wanted to answer one question: ‘Why is there a stigma surrounding male contraception?’ His experience so far has helped him to answer that.
Male Contraceptive Initiative
Male Contraceptive Initiative (MCI) is a non-profit organisation. It is based in the US state of North Carolina in Durham, also known as the ‘City of Medicine’. The charity was founded in 2014. It provides funding and advocacy support for the research and development of new methods of male contraception.
Kevin Shane, 43, the marketing and communications director for MCI, said: “If you are unwilling to accept the responsibility for your actions, you really don’t deserve the right to those actions. It’s not masculine to get somebody pregnant and then leave them. Or say ‘well your problem, not my issue’. It takes a sperm producer and an egg producer to create a child. Because of that, it’s extremely important for us to have the tools and resources for both men and women to do what’s necessary to meet their family planning goals.
“Some people would look at contraception and say ‘oh you want to facilitate a hook-up culture’ or ‘it’s all about sex’ but no. The reality is that imagine just how incredible the world will be when we have men and women able to maintain control over their reproductive health. It’s going to change the world.”
“It’s going to change the world.”
Logan Nickels, 32, the research director for MCI, said: “The way we can tackle contraception now is to appeal to men’s sense of responsibility. Even if they see contraception as the female partner’s responsibility, reproduction does take two.
“I think appealing to men’s ideas of ‘do you want to go through the process of unintended pregnancy’ or ‘do you want to be responsible for your own reproductive destiny’ is one way to reach those men that maybe have opinions that it’s not quite their place. I think the other thing we need to do is normalise talking about male contraception.”
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