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Is London ready for the male contraceptive pill?

The last birth-control breakthrough was the vasectomy in the 1970s. Now, a new wave of London lads are open to swallowing not snipping

Jessica Phillips
Written by
Jessica Phillips

I was recently at a house party; the night punctuated by beer pong, dilating pupils and lightheaded chats. But there was a weight in the air. ‘Roe v Wade’ had recently been overturned in the US (a ruling which took away the federal right to an abortion in all 50 states) and the men in the room – a mix of progressive lawyer types and Tory-voting Oxbridge grads – had assembled in the corner to discuss it.

Like most people in possession of a womb and a wi-fi connection, I’d just about had it with male-only groups voicing opinions and making decisions about female reproductive healthcare. So, emboldened by five rum punches, I approached the ad-hoc debating society to find out how much they really knew about the topics they were discussing. I asked if they knew how much the morning-after pill costs: they didn’t. How effective condoms were: they overshot. But then, a breakthrough. Would they take a male contraceptive pill? The answer was yes across the board.

Pills for peens

If ever there was a time to roll out a pill for peens, it’s now. The cost-of-living crisis is raging: there are seven renters for each available room in the capital; £9 pints are on the rise; and the real stinger: bloody peas are replacing avo on toast. The last thing anyone needs is an unwanted pregnancy. 

Unlike many comparable nations, people in the UK benefit from free contraception and abortion care (God bless the NHS), but a new form of birth control hasn’t hit the market since the 1970s, and our reproductive healthcare needs to level up, and fast.

Having an IUD implanted and removed is about as pleasant as having your insides massaged by a chainsaw

Even in 2022, condoms are only 82 percent effective with typical use, the standard issue combined pill is known to cause side effects from weight gain to strokes, and having an IUD implanted and removed is about as pleasant as having your insides massaged by a chainsaw.

Women’s bodies are currently bearing the brunt of the work, which makes about as much sense as ensuring the best trauma surgeon is on-call rather than checking the car brakes before hitting the M25. It’s time for modern medicine (and men) to step up.

Making progress

Globally, progress is being made, both in terms of medical research and men’s willingness to take new contraceptives. In 2010, scientists at King’s College in London tried to create a non-hormonal drug. It gained the nickname ‘the dry orgasm pill’ because it was meant to work by preventing the release of semen, and therefore sperm, during sex. And though – fret not, male reader – men’s orgasms weren’t meant to be affected, it failed to take off.

The newest iteration of the male pill – consisting of testosterone instead of oestrogen, and administered as a gel, injection or pill to suppress the production of sperm – is currently in an ongoing second-stage clinical trial in the US and has so far been found to be safe and effective. Positive news, given a recent survey of 1,500 American men found that the overwhelming majority were interested in male contraception options. Though hesitancy remains around its efficacy and side effects.

Londoner Tom, 28, has reservations about the newness of the drug, saying: ‘I wouldn’t take the  pill unless it was safe to do so and approved by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.’ While Will, 24, says he fears ‘the side effects of the “female pill” – depression, acne, hair loss, migraines – would be replicated in the male equivalent’.

Then there’s the issue around that most delicate of things: masculinity. In one survey conducted by The Independent Pharmacy in May 2022, more than 10 percent of men asked felt that ‘contraceptive pills are for women’. A further 7 percent believed that taking birth control would make them ‘less of a man’. 

So, while we’re moving in the right direction to stop sperm meeting egg, a much trickier challenge first needs to be overcome: the gendered assumption that preventing pregnancy is a female responsibility.

The next gen

The silver lining? If any generation of men is going to make a difference to the reproductive health status quo, it’s the next one. In 2020, sex education was updated in England’s schools for the first time since the millennium to include compulsory topics such as consent, physical boundaries, digital privacy, abortion and domestic abuse.

Even millennial men, whose sex-ed often extended no further than having someone demonstrate putting a condom on a banana, are proving to be surprising allies.

More than 52 percent of British men, for egalitarian or practical reasons, say they would take the male pill if it became available. Evan, 28, says it would make him feel more accountable in the bedroom. Whereas, for James, 31, it would help in casual relationships, where convos about condoms or coils can often be tossed aside along with bras and briefs, a sentiment echoed by Sam, 27, who owns up to his own shortcomings: ‘I’m pro male pill because I’ve forgotten to wear a condom in the past, which has caused stress later on.’

As for outdated ideas of masculinity, Chris, 27, who would readily take the pill if it became available on the NHS, says, ‘If you’re worried that not getting your girlfriend pregnant at every possible opportunity makes you less masculine, I’m here to tell you, you don’t need to try so hard.’ Instead, he takes the reverse view. ‘If anything, for me, it would make me feel more masculine because I’d be taking responsibility and protecting someone I care about.’

A rigged game

But it’s not quite that simple, especially when you factor in the people with more skin in the game. The grim truth is, when contraception fails, the burden isn’t equal, and until both parties view contraception as a two-player game and sign up to play, it will always be rigged for women to lose.

Jean, 28, tells me, ‘I like the idea of the responsibility of taking the pill not always being on me, but unless I was in a serious relationship where I could totally trust the other person, I’d rather take it myself.’ Rachel, 29, says she ‘wouldn’t feel confident that a man was being honest with me’ – a valid concern, given an average of 25 instances of rape, which includes ‘stealthing’ (the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex), are recorded in London every day.

The knock-on impacts on men’s bodies need considering too. Laura, 27, who’s been in a long-term relationship for more than three years, explains: ‘As much as I think the option to take the pill should be there for both of us, asking my partner to potentially suffer the same side effects as me doesn’t feel responsible either.’ Though, she caveats, ‘Maybe men’s suffering will be taken more seriously and actually inspire more research into a non-hormonal option.’

The future isn’t female

Right now, it’s looking pretty unlikely that a mass rollout of the male pill will happen within the reproductive lifetimes of all Millennial women. And even if it does, fear of the unknown, the potential for microchip conspiracy theorists to get involved, and women having to take a stranger’s word for it in nightclub toilet hook-ups, might yet stop it from being a universal hit.

But a small, hopefully significant, chunk of London’s lads are already flirting with the idea, with a view to one day being able to respond to ‘do you take the pill?’ with ‘I do’.

For the next gen of cuffed-up couples, it could be a gamechanger. Choosing who pops the pills could be as routine as deciding between an Indian or Thai takeaway. Or the reality might be that the ‘male pill’ will just be a stepping stone to ensuring parity and safety between the sheets.

One thing’s for certain: the future of reproductive health isn’t solely female, and I for one, am more than fine with that.

Interviewees’ names have been changed.

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