Peter Lloyd, whose work I greatly admire, recently posted an article hailing the male pill in response to a ridiculous article by Tom Sykes who views the pill as an assault on masculinity. Neither writer seems to have seen the big picture.
Sykes believes that the pill will be different psychologically for men than women because men do not “live in fear of getting pregnant.” Because of this, men won’t take the pill. Instead they will view it as an attack on their manhood, because manhood is tied to potency. He cites the small number of British men who get sterilized as evidence in support of his position. This might be a valid argument except for a couple of points.
First, the pill is entirely reversible. If a man wants to have a child, he need only stop taking the pill for a few weeks. Vasectomies can be reversed in some cases, but not all, and the longer a man waits, the less likely it is to work. Second, the manufacturers claim that the side effects of a vasectomy such as loss of libido and increased risk of certain cancers will not be side effects of the pill. Sykes mentions that the psychological consequence of a vasectomy is that men no longer feel virile or potent and feel less masculine which may lead to the decreased libido and difficulty in getting an erection. However, this should not have as great an effect on those taking the pill since it is reversible simply be ceasing to take it.
Finally, Sykes’ belief that men don’t fear getting pregnant can also be discounted because men frequently fear getting their partner pregnant, then having absolutely no control over the decisions about abortion, giving birth, custody and visitation, and paying child support. This is potentially even more emasculating than Sykes arguments because men typically want to believe they are in control of their own lives. The greatest benefit of the pill would be that it would finally give men a viable contraceptive choice that would allow them control over their own reproduction.
This last point is the main argument put forth by Lloyd. Men currently have no viable choice in reproductive matters. Condoms are inconvenient and reduce pleasure. Vasectomies are permanent and have side effects. And abstinence is usually not desirable. The male pill would, according to Lloyd, “empower men to control the outcome of their sexual encounters; only becoming fathers when they wanted to.” He believes that it would allow men to participate in reproductive decisions and share in the responsibility for birth control. “Men wouldn’t have casual lovers deciding when they became fathers. They’d make that crucial, life-changing decision themselves.” Although this would not end paternity fraud entirely, Lloyd is correct and his argument in favor are far sounder than Sykes argument against. But there are other issues.
Both Lloyd and Sykes discuss trust in relationships. Sykes states that women won’t want to trust men who say they are on the pill and they shouldn’t have to. He argues that men will lie in order to get sex and that women should not have to trust men to be “as responsible” as they are. Lloyd argues that men already have to trust women when they say claim to be on the pill (or using other types of contraception) and that many of them lie about it. The pill would only level the playing field. Of course if every person (man or woman) simply assumes responsibility for themselves, then both partners will use contraception. This would even reduce the risk of contraceptive failure since it would have to fail on both ends to result in pregnancy.
Neither Sykes nor Lloyd mentions the current legal climate. First, feminists are beginning to argue that men who lie in order to obtain sex are guilty of rape. A couple of years ago a man was convicted using deception to obtain sex in Israel so this is a legitimate concern. Men will need to be truthful to protect themselves and their partners. Second, it will only reinforce the idea that sex (for men) represents consent to become a parent, which is already the prevailing attitude. This means that men who elect not to take the pill will likely have fewer legal remedies than they do now should they impregnate a woman. It could also be seen as the solution for men who don’t want children and become the basis for the argument against abortion for men. In other words, the medical ability to abstain from fatherhood could get in the way of a legal solution that would increase men’s reproductive rights and not merely their choices.
One last point, I’ve also heard it said that some physicians won’t perform vasectomies on married men without first obtaining the consent of the wife. I don’t know whether this is true, but if so, it could become an issue with obtaining the male pill.
While all of these issues are worthy of consideration, none should be sufficient reason not to move forward with development of a male pill. I agree with Lloyd on this; a male pill would finally give men some control over their reproductive choices. However, a male pill should not be allowed to derail those who are concerned with men’s reproductive rights. Having a medical choice can be a legal right, but it cannot replace a legal right. Sykes’ arguments are largely nonsense and are easily shot down. Lloyd’s are far more coherent, but not nearly as comprehensive as they should be. I don’t claim that mine are comprehensive either, but there are concerns that will need to be addressed and we shouldn’t allow our excitement to derail us from our goals. A male pill is a huge step forward, but it is not the be-all and end-all for men’s reproductive rights.
Note: This article is also available in Spanish.