Wimpy men and sexism in birth control

Recently a new study regarding birth control for men has made the social media rounds. In it, male participants experienced side effects that included depression, mood swings, acne, muscle pain, and increased libido. Due to these side effects, the production of a male birth control shot requires further testing.

The standard reaction making its way through feminist circles is that these side effects are very similar to the ones women already experience by the legally available birth control pill. It was even mocked in a recent Daily Show segment where the correspondent Michelle Wolf said, “Men are such little bitches,” and “You guys call that ‘side effects.’ I call that day four of a fairytale period,” and “Side effects are the only area where women earn more than men.”

Evidence of the patriarchy has presented itself in the form of a double standard for acceptable side effects of birth control. However, this is far from the whole story. A quick read of the press release put out by the researchers reveals that it isn’t so much the nature of the side effects that makes the shot “unsafe” but the frequency of those side effects. For the knee-jerk apples to apples comparison from feminists to be accurate, not only would both the shot and the pill have to cause mood swings and acne, but they would both have to cause them at relatively the same rate.

Overall, a study that compared the birth control patch with the pill found a serious adverse event rate of 2%. Meanwhile, according to an article by Vox, in the men’s shot study, “Nearly a quarter of participants experienced pain at the injection site, nearly half got acne, more than 20 percent had a mood disorder, 38 percent experienced an increased sexual drive, and 15 percent reported muscle pain. Other, rarer side effects included testicular pain, night sweats, and confusion.” All told, 20 men dropped out of the study because of these side effects. One participant even committed suicide, though researchers determined the birth control to be unrelated.

Taking acne as an example, the pill reduces it for 70% of women and the Mirena IUD has a rate of only 6.8% of acne. While, as Vox pointed out, 50% of men experienced acne with the shot. This disparity undercuts the simplistic comparison being made by feminists. If they looked soberly at the findings of this study and truly cared about equality of the sexes, they should feel excited about the progress being made towards a male birth control option while still wanting it to be as safe as reasonably possible before it’s publicly available.

Among the other reactions on social media, some have pointed out the unethical testing done to approve the female birth control pill 50 years ago. “I would just like to point out,” one poster wrote, “that the recent conversation surrounding the male birth control trials isn’t just ‘lol weak men can’t deal with side effects’ it’s the fact that when they were testing hormonal birth control for women in the 50s and 60s, the side effects were much worse, and the women who participated in them, mostly in Puerto Rico, were not told about the side effects or that the drug was experimental.”

They aren’t wrong about the history. In order to circumvent the illegality of contraceptives in much of the U.S. at the time, testing was done on subjects in Puerto Rico. These women – who were poor and illiterate – could barely communicate with the researchers. They weren’t told that the pills were part of a clinical trial or what the risks entailed. Being a high-dose version of the modern pill, the side effects were similar to those experienced today but more severe. Included among these were nausea, bloating, weight gain, depression, loss of libido, and severe mood changes. The most significant, however, was blood clotting which resulted in three deaths of test subjects. Deemed 100 percent effective, these serious side effects were ignored and the FDA approved the pill for severe menstrual disorders, not as a contraceptive.

A brief history allows for what is missing from the simplistic comparison being made online: context. As unethical as these tests may have been in the formation of the original female birth control pill, the standards of testing and ethics have surely changed over the course of a 50 year span. It is not fair to draw a comparison between the testing done at that time with the testing done today, which to feminists appears to have been done with kids gloves.

Ironically, the pill was fought for and championed by feminists of the time. Gregory Pincus, the scientist behind the pill, received $40,000 in research funding from the women’s rights activist Katherine McCormick. The goal of feminists like McCormick and Margaret Sanger with her was to give women greater sexual liberation. Now, a woman could choose when, where, and with whom to have a child. After this controversial pill with its adverse side effects was approved, McCormick went to the doctor with a prescription for the pill at the age of 80. Not intending to use it, this was a symbolic moment of her accomplishment for women around the country.

This historic accomplishment, perhaps much to the dismay of their deceased forebears, is now shown as proof of patriarchal oppression by contemporary feminists. Most feminists take the new angle that access to birth control isn’t liberating but rather a burden. The advent of male birth control isn’t a time for men to finally have more control over when, where, and with whom they have a child but a time for them to bear the “burden” of uncomfortable side effects. Through the lens of the patriarchy, the pill was not created by and for women it was created by and for men. As the logic of the patriarchy becomes twisted, it falls back upon itself when it sees a feminist success as proof of systemic male domination.

Forged with good intentions, the original pill had a complicated and sometimes unethical history. Ultimately, however, women clamored for it. The demand was clearly there. If it is now a curse and not a blessing, women only have feminists to blame and not the patriarchy. 75% of men who were involved in this study wanted to continue receiving the shot in spite of the increased amount of side effects they faced.

The demand is there, too. For 50 years, men have not had a better option than the condom. For 50 years, men have had to rely on women to take the pill, trust in their consistent use of it for effectiveness, and believe them when they said they were on it. Men are now where women were 50 years ago, clamoring for a means of achieving confidence and sexual liberation through control of their reproductive choices in spite of any known side effects.

Maybe one day, when a future generation takes the male option for granted, we will hear men complaining of its burden just as women do now. We just haven’t caught up yet. That is the real story.






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