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Male contraceptive gel? Women will never trust men when it comes to birth control

The man approaches nervously. Asks her name. She nods with a smile, and he takes the seat opposite. It’s one of those first dates that just clicks: conversation flows, beats between topics act as punctuation rather than awkward silences. Drinks turns into dinner turns into cocktails turns into a taxi back to her place, where things continue to flow – this time physically. She reaches for a condom, but he touches her lightly on the wrist.

“Don’t worry, I’m on the gel.”

This could legitimately be a snapshot of the future after a new form of male contraceptive has shown considerable promise in early trials.

Containing the hormones nestorone and testosterone, the revolutionary gel has been found to lower sperm counts to contraceptive-level effectiveness within around eight weeks – a shorter timeframe than similar male contraceptives also in development, some of which can take up to four months to make the grade.

The trial first launched in 2018 and has been monitoring sperm counts in more than 200 males in the US. For more than half of men, the gel was effective within two months, rising to more than three-quarters in three months.

“More than 80 per cent of participants using this novel male hormonal contraceptive gel formulation containing Nestorone 8mg [milligrams] and Testosterone 74mg showed suppressed sperm output within 12 weeks, a rate that appears to be faster than prior studies with other hormonal regimens,” say scientists from the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, who authored the study. “A more rapid time to suppression may increase the attractiveness and acceptability to potential users.”

The product, designed to be rubbed into the shoulder blades daily, had already been in development for a decade by the time testing launched. Dr Diana Blithe, the project lead, declared the team was “hopeful” that it would “demonstrate effectiveness of a male method for use by couples”.

Reproductive rights have been reversed in some US states
Reproductive rights have been reversed in some US states (AP)

“A successful result may lead to additional scientific discovery around contraceptive products for men,” she added.

While it’s all very admirable and an important scientific breakthrough, the main stumbling block that stood out to me had nothing to do with timings, effectiveness or, in fact, the gel at all. The main stumbling block is the idea that women could ever really feel safe entrusting the opposite sex with the fundamentals of birth control.

Ever since the invention of contraception – and before the concept even existed – women have always known it’s up to us to take care of the distinctly unsexy “not falling pregnant” part of sex. We had to be the ones counting the days of our cycles to lower the likelihood of conceiving a child before condoms came onto the scene; we had to be the ones to insist that a man use one once they did. While the development of other methods like the combined pill, implant and coil liberated us further, it also kept the responsibility firmly in our hands. Don’t want a baby? Pump your body full of hormones that make you feel unhinged and have a higher blood clot risk than the Covid-19 vaccines, or get a device inserted that may cause longer, heavier periods and debilitating cramps. Don’t fancy any of that? Insist on rubbers (and enjoy frequent moping about how “it just doesn’t feel the same”) or put a huge amount of trust in the person you’re sleeping with to exercise enough control to “pull out” at the correct time.

And, unless you have gone down the route of putting something into your body, whether it be physical, chemical or both, you remain profoundly vulnerable, taking it on faith that a man will be true to his word. Case in point: the rise in stealthing, the practice of not wearing or secretly removing a condom when having sex with someone without their consent. It’s defined as rape in English and Welsh law, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening to a staggering number of women. While it’s difficult to get data because the practice is so rarely reported, according to one study on more than 1,100 patients at a sexual health clinic in Melbourne, Australia, 32 per cent of women had been victims of stealthing at one time or another.

In a world where women could be imprisoned for having an abortion, the idea of entrusting contraception to men feels even more laughable

Women who had experienced stealthing tended to play it down – they were three times less likely to consider it to be sexual assault than participants who had not experienced it. But, according to the charity Rape Crisis England & Wales, “Rape is never, ever OK – no matter what ‘kind’ of rape it is. At Rape Crisis England & Wales, we prefer to use the word ‘rape’ when talking about stealthing. That’s because we think it’s important to be very clear about what stealthing really is.”

Of course, as always, this comes with a huge #NotAllMen caveat. We know that the vast majority of guys aren’t out there tricking sexual partners in the most despicable ways. But the very fact this crime exists – and is prevalent enough to have developed its own moniker – is enough reason to keep women convinced that birth control remains solely our domain.

Then there’s the issue of reproductive rights in general, which have been terrifyingly walked back in certain US states to the point where The Handmaid’s Tale is starting to look like non-fiction. In a world where women could be imprisoned for having an abortion, the idea of entrusting contraception to men feels even more laughable.

After all, biologically, it’s we who are stuck with the ramifications if an accident does happen; our bodies that have to change in order to grow a human; our lives that will be irrevocably altered should we decide to bring another human into this world. Without those consequences, will men ever take the issue of contraception as seriously as women are forced to? They may take a financial hit, but they’re still free to disappear into the ether, forever maintaining a footloose-and-fancy-free lifestyle should they wish – an option rarely afforded to women.

So yes, while “don’t worry, I’m on the gel” could legitimately be a snapshot of the future, we all know she would worry – and for good reason. Contraceptive gels – and male contraceptives in general – are all well and good, but until men are forced to take real responsibility for children in the same way that women are, I fear birth control will forever remain our responsibility too.

Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)

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