Popping the Pill

Story by Nikole Chumley

Almost all sexually active women have used birth control at some point in their lives. Nearly 99 percent of sexually active women, in fact. You would be hard pressed to find statistics that accurately state how many men also have used birth control.

PULSE spoke to students, professors and health educators to get the intimate details of why women are deemed responsible for using birth control and why men still don’t have basic information or access to their own. You would think that in 2018 someone—somewhere—would have found more ways for men to control their fertility than just condoms, which many men don’t like to use.

As it turns out, a few people have. India had a semi-successful study done over the last 13 years on male birth control while the U.S. has made a few attempts as well. Birth control is not solely for women; it is time to re-frame the conversation on birth control on shared responsibility rather than imposing the majority of child-rearing on the mother.

Birth control is most often framed as a ‘woman’s issue.’ But why is this? Shouldn’t everyone have a shared responsibility of preventing unintended pregnancy, which, according to CWU Wellness Center Health Education Coordinator Erin Rhees, occurs in about 50 percent of all pregnancies? The truth is that women have the responsibility of using birth control because we are the child bearers. But it doesn’t explain why men don’t have to think of birth control at all, especially since most condoms are geared toward men.

Condoms are one of the most effective tools at preventing pregnancy, yet many people choose to forego the small bit of latex and use the ineffective method of withdrawal, or pulling out. Rhees points out that the number of CWU students using condoms have declined in recent years, but there is no indication as to why. So maybe the answer as to why men don’t have the numerous options that women have is because there seems to be no market for male birth control.

Judy Hennessy, director of Gender and Sexuality Studies here at CWU, says, “Marketing, in terms of contraception, is women. … There’s a lot of cultural [pressure], but there’s also kind of a practical, financial [incentive].” According to her, there is no financial viability for spending the immense amount of time and money to create a male birth control.

In fact, that is the exact reason that a major study in India, in which male birth control had a 99 percent effectiveness and was reversible, was shut down because no one wanted to spend money on further development. This is a major departure to the idea that men’s birth control studies are shut down because they can’t handle the side effects. The reality of it is that they are almost always shut down due to funding and an extremely limited market.

So, what needs to change so that men can choose birth control like Doritos at a super market? Morgan Bedard, current secretary and former president of Central’s Planned Parenthood Generation Action club explains why education is the answer. “Education is the biggest thing in making people not afraid of something they don’t know about.” Bedard details her sex-ed class in Montana as being “strictly abstinence-only, shaming people for having sex.”

Fortunately for us in Washington State, it is illegal to teach abstinence-only as a sex-ed course. Unfortunately, there is no regulation of what schools do teach, according to Rhees. This means that sex education like the one Jasmin Washington, Peer Health  Educator focusing on sexual health and relationships at the CWU Wellness Center got in her high school class, which consisted of “three days of cartoons,” might not be too far from the norm. Sexual education needs to become comprehensive and complete for people of all genders in order for birth control to become widely available to all.

Perhaps the biggest block to male birth control is the idea of empowerment. Hennessy speaks of empowerment and fertility. “To be able to fully participate in society, women need to be able to control their fertility. Men do not have that pressure,” she says.

Almost all working women in our country must eventually decide to choose: career or family? Often times, that’s not even a thought for working men. “It’s all tied into what it means to be a man. It’s tied into masculinity,” Hennessy explains, adding that a man controlling his fertility is perceived as un-masculine, and that “men are supposed to want to have sex and the consequences are on women.” This could mean a man who is having safe, protected sex and engaging in those kinds of conversations may be more likely to be mocked instead of praised for being responsible.

Erasing the idea that controlling male fertility is disempowering could lead to an increased market of men looking for birth control. One way to do this is to increase the responsibilities for men when an unintended pregnancy does occur. Right now, the most men have to agree to is paying child support. Women, however, need to harbor a growing being inside them, endure a grueling (sometimes dangerous) child delivery and have a dramatic influx of hormones, foreign bodies and countless other physical changes.

On top of that, women are also more likely to suffer from any societal shame if the child is born out of wedlock. Additionally, that woman may need to take time off of work and deal with a decrease in income or lose her job entirely. If she does decide to stay at work, she will then most likely face questions such as ‘Who’s watching your kid right now?’ or ‘Don’t you feel bad leaving them without their mom while you’re here?’ Hennessy says, “It seems cold and calculating but the consequences for men are to pay child support, while women bear much greater material consequences.”

According to Bedard, people should first be exposed to proper sexual education in middle school, since that is when many people with uteruses get their first period. She argues that comprehensive sex-ed can be taught in stages throughout middle and high school, to give everyone plenty of time to ask questions and fully understand the subject.

Birth control has benefited women since its inception and if that resource becomes available to all, everyone may be responsible for making safe reproductive choices.