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Making a “Male Birth Control” Pill Conceivable

Making a “Male Birth Control” Pill Conceivable

A “male birth control pill” is now one step closer to technological plausibility—but not much more socially plausible than it was last week.

It’s an inconceivable technology, to indulge the irresistible pun. Okay, it’s not entirely inconceivable, but my guess is that the male birth control pill would be under-utilized.

Reproductive technologies tend to get applied, interpreted and used in conformity with our pre-existing values, as much as they might transform or smash them.

Reproductive technology is like a window that we can gaze through to see new places. But it’s also like a mirror that reflects our views, power dynamics, sexual mores, and inequalities right back on us, and reinforces them.

I can see how men would welcome a pill as assurance against getting “tricked” into a pregnancy, as some allege, and against unwanted paternity.

But from a single woman’s perspective, what would it take to really and truly trust the man who said to you, “don’t worry, I’m on the pill?”  

Let’s say you’re not in a marriage or a long-term relationship where, presumably, trust makes more sense—although I know better than to presume anything at this point. Remember: the primal urge to have sex, and the fun house mirror distortions of lust tend to make people impulsive and, sometimes, downright desperate liars. And the social and biological consequences of pregnancy still fall disproportionately to women.

When I put myself back in the shoes of my younger, single self, I think that for me to really trust that statement, “I’m on the pill,” we’d have to have more respect in our culture, for each other, for sex, and parenthood. Men would have to have enough respect for women to tell the truth.

The technology doesn’t create respect. It might, over time, but the technology is agnostic. It won’t turn skunks into saints. It would just render the skunk, if he actually took his pills, infertile.

A culture of true, and serious, mutual responsibility for the support of children would be required—such that the fact that the woman carries the baby doesn’t mean that she’s more responsible after its birth than the father who lied or forgot to take his pill. That stern standard of mutual responsibility—more than we see today with child support—would provide incentive for men to take the matter of birth control just as seriously as women (women take chances, too. But at least both men and women would have equal skin in the game).

It would take a culture where the idea of the male player after a score wasn’t so pervasive, so that the incentive to feign use of the male birth control pill for a conquest wouldn’t be as strong.

And for me at least, it would be easier to trust a boyfriend with an invisible, unverifiable method of birth control if we had a culture that was so genuinely pro-sex that sex wasn’t “used” to fulfill other, ancillary motives and needs. If we were all really having sex just for sex’s sake, then the motives to deceive and manipulate for extra-sexual ends would be diminished.  Even so, the urge just to have sex for sex’s sake is strong enough on its own terms.

All of these changes, which are cultural and not technological, would create a real “male birth control pill.” What’s technologically possible isn’t necessarily socially possible.

Other reproductive technologies have had double-edged results. They’ve both created new possibilities and reinforced old values. Our culture reveres motherhood, at least rhetorically. When methods of in vitro fertilization moved into the mainstream, they created new choices, even miracles. But it could plausibly be argued that they introduced constraints, too. They made it far more difficult for individual women to say “no” to all the rigorous treatments. My friends who have gone through IVF say that the technological possibilities made it seem as if they were “giving up” if they didn’t go the whole grueling distance. The technology created an opportunity for them but also a new if subtle compulsion, for them to do everything possible, however painful, risky and expensive, rather than deciding under the circumstances that perhaps biological conception and motherhood wasn’t everything, and to decide to adopt children or remain childfree instead.

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Some abortion foes feel that the reproductive technology of RU-436, the “abortion pill,” creates not another choice but another pressure for women to end a pregnancy when the father doesn’t want it. I don’t agree with that argument, but it’s not an outlandish one to make.

The Pill was hugely consequential. It’s credited with having sparked women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, and there’s a very sound argument to be made along those lines. But there’s also plausibility to another argument women have made, that the Pill changed sexual dynamics so that men came to feel “entitled” to sex, now that it was pregnancy risk-free, and that the so-called sexual revolution of the late 1960s mostly expanded male sexual privilege, access and entitlement without really evolving attitudes about women’s desires and sexual agency.

I can see the merits of that argument, too, as well as the argument that women’s liberation is partially a consequence of the Pill.

There’s no harm in the development of a new option for men. We might as well, and who knows how a male birth control pill might change gender relations over time? Maybe it will prove popular, and make men much more invested in conception and its contra.  

But for now, it sounds like a dangerous case of outsourcing to me.


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