Will there ever come a day when women are not the primary caretakers of contraception? Aside from the ever faithful (occasionally not) but unloved condom, or the more drastic vasectomy, men only have the withdrawal method, which is about as trustworthy as a Tory in charge of the benefits budget and therefore must be discounted as a serious option.
No surprise then that it usually falls to the womenfolk to make sure that we’re not getting sprogged up every time we get down. And what does that entail for us? Typically, different ways of ingesting hormones: by pill, injection or implants. Not forgetting the scary sounding coil, with its occasional horror stories about internal ripping. I’m sure it has hardly ever happened but even the tiniest possibility was enough to put me off.
All of these hormones have good and bad points: the pill has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer and thrombosis. It can increase blood pressure, and cause bleeding and spotting throughout the month. On the plus side, the monthly period often becomes a trickle instead of a deluge, with the added bonus option of going from packet to packet with no bleeding at all, ideal if your blobs coincide with a beach holiday. Aside from these risks, the long term effect of putting artificial hormones into your body for twenty, or even thirty years, cannot be a good one.
There are genuine scientific reasons for the development of female rather than male contraception – they have millions of sperm and we only have one egg a month, so it’s easier to stop that than attempt to stem the tide of little swimmers. Yet surely there are more patriarchal reasons for the developments, given that men have traditionally dominated the field of scientific research. Men are not as accustomed to being poked and prodded by the medical profession as women. And they are less likely to agree to any fiddling around in the downstairs department, or anything that they perceive might mess around with their virility and manhood.
But perhaps the day of male equality is not so far at hand. There was an intriguing article in The Guardian today about the latest developments in the search for an effective male contraceptive. Most of these methods are still in the testing phase (mainly on rabbits, monkeys and mice) and are a long time away from actual man usage. The proposed methods include injection, implants and pills and tend to focus on blocking sperm, or reducing their reproductive activity. My personal favourite though, is nicknamed the ‘clean sheet’ pill because it stops all fluid during ejaculation. I wonder how men would feel about that one? At the very least, I expect it would be banned in the porn industry. No happy endings there.
One of the things I find interesting in the article is that it mentions a study of attitudes toward the concept of a male pill, where both males and females were positive towards the idea, women especially. I do get that, given that we’ve been shouldering the responsibility and the health risks for such a long time. But, and this is a big but, could we actually trust them to remember to take it?
Perhaps this is anti-feminist of me, I don’t know. My pill days are now over, but I took the daily contraceptive pill for more than twenty years. In that time, there were at least a dozen times when I forgot to take it, or I was sick, or on antibiotics, both of which can interfere with the effectiveness. Many of us in that situation will remember that sinking feeling when you went to the packet to take your pill and realised you hadn’t taken the one the day before. If you’d been shag free in that time, there was no need to panic, but if you hadn’t, a nervous wait until your next period ensued. At least we knew for ourselves when we were at risk and when we weren’t. And I’m not saying that men are intrinsically more dishonest than women, BUT in the heat of the moment, would a man who had forgotten his pill the day before, really stop? Many of us will have taken stupid risks, whether we’re male or female, but some men have been known to walk away from the result of these mistakes. Whether men help or not, it’s guaranteed that women will face the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. Maybe that gives us a slight edge when it comes to being sensible. I still remember this ad on billboards and magazines back in my youth:
If the Jeremy Kyle show is anything to go by, the world has not changed that much. The invention of the pill in the 1960’s coincided with the growth of women’s liberation and ushered in the ‘free love’ era. Or it did if you lived in London or San Francisco. If you grew up in a Catholic household in Scotland, educated by nuns, attitudes towards pre-marital sex remained prudish for a long time. My mum ‘accidentally’ found out I was on the pill when I was 17 and going out with my first serious boyfriend. I say ‘accidentally’ but I have no doubt she took the opportunity to rifle through my drawers while I was away on holiday. Of course she went mental, but the thing I remember most clearly was that she was so disappointed that I had made a sensible decision to get contraception. She said she would have understood it more if I had got carried away one night and found myself pregnant and desperate. And this was 1989. People who talk about ‘slut shaming’ these days should have tried growing up back then.
The point is that while my behaviour was in no way outrageous at the time, it took a lot longer than the 1960’s for women to ‘win’ our sexual freedom. You could easily argue that even in 2015, we still haven’t won it, as men and women are not judged or treated equally over their sexual behaviour. Despite this, the pill did change everything for women. It gave us control of our own fertility, and although that might have encouraged men to stop worrying about it, it meant that women were no longer reliant on the actions of men to prevent pregnancy.
While the rational and egalitarian side of me agrees that men should take equal responsibility for contraception, a smaller voice inside wonders how much of that hard won freedom we’d be giving away if we let men go on the pill. Outside of a long term relationship, it would be very risky behaviour indeed. Perhaps the condom is the perfect contraception after all: apart from being the only method that also prevents the spread of diseases, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re using it. And if all else fails, there are always bad shoes…
Until next time,