The Agonizing Ecstasies of Male Contraception

by Eleanor Ray

There’s been some commotion on the web this week about RISUG/Vasalgel, the devastatingly sexy and relentlessly practical male contraceptive procedure that has passed all test(e)s with flying colors in India, and then languished in unfunded obscurity internationally, apparently due to its total lack of commercial viability for Big Pharma. The start of American animal testing in March sparked this viral TechCitement article, which more or less echoes a very thorough (with very informative, but definitely FULL OF BALLS video) Wired article from last year.

The basic outline is as follows: man goes to doctor. Doctor performs a tiny surgical procedure similar to a vasectomy, which about 500,000 American men get every year, except that rather than severing the vas deferens, an injected goo turns those tubes into a sort of sperm In-Sink-erator, and none (that is, 0%) of those suckers come through viable. Fifteen minutes and a bandaid later, man can’t knock anyone up for 10 years, or until he decides he wants to, at which point another quick injection flushes out the sperm-addling substance, and man is just as capable of fatherhood as he ever was. These, at least, are the claims of the Indian lab, which has been running human tests since 1989 and reports no adverse effects, and lots of positive ones in the form of babies that don’t exist.

My initial reaction to this story was blinding, annihilating excitement. Could we now have the technology to create a man who fully owns his reproductive destiny? Who can say, “There will be no babies now,” and, some years later can, say, “Now it’s baby time,” just like that? Why would we bother with Batman, Wolverine, or Robocop when you can make a 6 Million Dollar Man for under a hundred bucks (oh yeah, did I mention it’s cheap)? I want this to be possible with every fiber of my being; I have never felt a carnal interest in scientific papers before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Regardless of the particular virtues of RISUG/Vasalgel, I was shocked that I’d never heard of anything like it being tested in the States, while all kinds of barbaric and invasive stuff is perpetrated on females pretty much willy-nilly (did you know that women are now chattel in Georgia?). The simple biological fact of men having external reproductive organs, while women have them way up inside their bodies where they’re hard to get at, would seem to suggest that some mechanical intervention in the male would be an efficient way to interrupt the preggification process, but apparently cauterization of tubes and bits of rubber are the advanced technological solutions that merit endorsement by Planned Parenthood for men. Predictably, there is more at work here than just biology; male contraception has run afoul of conventional gender roles, and, like the WNBA, has become a permanent underdog, for that and no other reason.

Female humans have been presented with lots of ways to prevent the S from getting to the E and making the B, whether it be taking crazy hormones (mine make me menstruate only every six months, and throw up immediately if I try to smoke a cigarette), more rubber bits, intensive scheduling, or passing pieces of copper through their cervixes. Hilariously, the closest the RISUG people have gotten to international validation is a “$100,000 Gates Foundation grant to pursue a variation of RISUG in the fallopian tubes as a female contraceptive.” WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Oh, because the male version is too cheap and easy, and the point of birth control is to control women’s bodies. Right.

Looking through the history of male contraceptive research (well, a Google search), it is a sad, ugly place. All kinds of hormonal-and-miscellaneous-pill solutions have made it far into testing at major pharmaceutical companies, and then been abandoned. A Time article from 2008 notes a major die-off for these projects around 2007, as a result of a perceived lack of interest on the part of American men. This article exhales a resigned acceptance of science crippled by sexism, and contemporaneous articles on the subject effectively confirm this outlook through their flagrant misogyny. While there have been some amazing advances in intelligence and non-douchery in coverage of the topic since that time, we still have a long way to go, people.

I’m not sure where they found all the sexist whiners they quote in some of these articles. Most of the “con” arguments can be paraphrased as follows:

1. “My girlfriend takes hormones and she says it sucks, so I don’t want to take them,” which is a legit complaint for the roughly 12 million American women who are on the pill right now, but it’s hard to work out why this would be so rough for guys if women have been putting up with it for generations now. Also, guess what doesn’t involve hormones? RISUG/Vasalgel.

2. For RISUG/Vasalgel in particular: “Uggh they have to surgery my balls!” Okay, sure. Take a deep breath, and let it out. A simple, routine procedure, very similar to established medical practice. Local anesthetic. Fifteen minutes. Readily reversible. Anyone who finds the idea of getting RISUG-ed upsetting should read The Hairpin’s very thorough, but basically terrifying [Ed. — For some!] article about IUDs. There’s no There is local anesthetic for cervixes, but it’s the best we’ve got for ladies at the moment, so lots of women go through it and sometimes bleed/ache for weeks. Suck. It. Up.

3. “Women won’t trust men (to take pills or have the glue shot).” Yeah … so? If you’re having sex with someone who doesn’t trust you, you should be using a condom anyhow (STDs, bro!), but if you have another method in operation, you can pat yourself on the back (at the same time, if you can get a hand free) for eliminating condoms’ 15% failure rate. Birth control isn’t something that you do to impress someone, it’s something you do to NOT HAVE BABIES, and you know who’s a really great person not to have babies with? Some chick you picked up at the bar, who doesn’t trust you when you say you’re on the pill or got the glue shot. Also, guess what you don’t have to even trust yourself to take? RISUG/Vasalgel.

Speaking of distrusting your sexual partners, one of the “pro” arguments most frequently cited in these articles is almost as bad as the “cons”: men supposedly want this technology only in order to avoid baby-trapping. That’s right, the awesome myth of women’s “nefarious schemes” to get men to impregnate them is alive and well, and being heavily referenced in heath articles, as if it made any sense at all. One article from 2008 even went as far as to track down and quote a “masculinist,” which is apparently what you call a professional misogynist, who maintains that women are always trying to become pregnant by unwitting, innocent men who are in Men’s Rights hate groups. Given that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, one would hope that this offensive and ridiculous argument would have faded away, but nope! It’s in this MSNBC article from 2010, and heavily represented in the comments for basically every article that addresses this topic. I know and respect and love many men who have better sense and better reasons to take charge of their reproductive futures than some kind of twisted fear of women; I want this for them (and for this guy, who is right on the money, bless him).

Okay, so, all sexism and battle-of-the-sexes stuff aside, humans are not giant pandas. We are really, really good at getting each other pregnant; it’s as if it were our biological imperative, or something. The New York Times says that hormonal birth control for men is elusive, and I believe them. That said: this is the future of our species we’re talking about, here. With all the furor going on about female reproductive rights, I think shifting the dialogue to empowering all humans to choose their own adventures would be constructive. While we’re busy fighting about whose problem unintended pregnancies are, teenagers and young adults are out there letting biology take its course. Let’s see the forest for the trees here, folks. The common enemy is unintended pregnancy, and dividing the responsibility for that by gender is pitting the husband against the wife, the boyfriend against the girlfriend, etc. I can imagine a world where teenage boys go in for a 2-for-1 coming-of-age procedure, and come out without wisdom teeth but with wisdom tubes; groggy, but fully prepared for adulthood, maybe more so than anyone in human history. If RISUG/Vasalgel is a solution that seems to work, it deserves our attention, respect, and participation.

Eleanor Ray is a writer and artist (i.e. unemployed) in Chicago. Her tenuous grasp of biology in no way hinders her enjoyment of having a body.