The prospective male contraceptive gel, known as NES/T, works in a similar way to the women’s combined pill. It’s a hormone-based treatment containing progestogen, which influences the pituitary gland and causes a reduction in the production of follicle stimulating hormone – a key component in the making of sperm. The gel also contains amounts of testosterone which is hoped to alleviate some side effects. Despite the hormonal changes taking place, the researchers involved have ensured that the use of this gel should not affect the user’s sex drive. Effectively, the gel is putting male “testes to sleep.”
A contraceptive for men such as this has been long awaited. As explained by Dr. Cheryl Fitzgerald, who is leading the study in Manchester: “Currently, the contraceptive options for men are limited to condoms and vasectomies. We believe this preparation will allow men to control their fertility in a safe and simple way.”
Vasectomies are surgical procedures which cut the vas deferens (the long tube which carries mature sperm to the ejaculatory ducts) and thus sterilizes the man. It might not be a particularly complicated surgery, but it can be a bit sore afterward and isn’t always reversible and therefore is unlikely to be considered by the majority of men. Condoms, although effective at stopping pregnancy and preventing STIs, are not always a sure form of protection. Hence, a more user-friendly male contraceptive undoubtedly seems like a promising concept.
However, side effects may be seen almost as inevitable. As stated by Richard Anderson, who leads the team working on both this current gel and on the previous injection, “Any hormonal contraceptive method is likely to have some side-effects, as seen with female contraceptives,” he said, “this is the real world of contraception.” It’s the inconvenient reality. Any time you alter your hormone levels, it’s likely to have an effect on more than just your fertility. Both men and women might find themselves experiencing mood swings or acne or any one of a million other side effects – it becomes a question of whether one can live with these or not. Nevertheless, scientists have spent decades trying to perfect methods of female contraception, which are certainly still not without their flaws, and so it would be almost naive for men to be under the assumption that a male contraceptive would be side-effect-free.
Additionally, even if this trial is a total success, after speaking to some of my female friends, the issue has been raised as to whether putting so much responsibility on men to use contraception in this way offers complete surety. The fact is, men simply do not have the same motivation to take contraception as women.
They will never know the fear of a missed period or an unwanted pregnancy scare. They will never have to grapple with the idea that they might have to carry a baby for nine months. If contraception fails, men can walk away from the situation a whole lot more easily than women can. Alternatively, some men perhaps wish to have more control and more choice over how they can influence their fertility.
One potential problem that we might see arise due to this new gel is an increase in STIs. The new gel, unlike condoms, offers no protection against sexually transmitted infections.
As many men currently rely on condoms to control their fertility, with the side effect of preventing STIs, if a large proportion of men stopped using condoms in preference of NES/T, perhaps this would be a noticeable problem.
In the end, it takes two people to make a baby, and it should be the responsibility of both parties involved to ensure that at least some form of contraception is used so that everyone has an enjoyable time.
Image: Annabelle Schemer via Flickr