Hormonal birth control has been a popular pregnancy-preventing method for women for more than 50 years. Yet, nothing similar has hit the market for men in that time. Now, new research has found that a birth control shot for men is effective at preventing pregnancy, but the study was cut short because some of the men experienced unpleasant side effects.
The study, which was published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, recruited nearly 270 healthy men between the ages of 18 and 45 who had been in monogamous heterosexual relationships for at least a year. The men’s sperm counts were checked at the beginning of the study, and they were then given two hormone injections—progesterone and a form of testosterone—every eight weeks. They were monitored for up to six months until their sperm count fell to under a million.
At that point, the men were asked to use the shot as their only form of birth control for up to a year. The shot was nearly 96 percent effective, with four unintended pregnancies occurring, according to a press release from the Endocrine Society. For comparison’s sake, within the first year of typical use of the Pill, nine women out of 100 will get pregnant. For male condoms, that number jumps to 18 out of 100.
Although the shots seemed incredibly effective, side effects were a concern. The study’s researchers stopped taking new participants in 2011 due to negative symptoms, like depression and other mood disorders, as reported by the study’s participants. Side effects also included injection site pain, muscle pain, increased libido, and acne. Twenty men dropped out due to side effects, but more than 75 percent of participants said they would use this form of contraception after the study, per the Endocrine Society.
“More research is needed to advance this concept to the point that it can be made widely available to men as a method of contraception,” study co-authors Mario Philip Reyes Festin, M.D., of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, said in a press release. “Although the injections were effective in reducing the rate of pregnancy, the combination of hormones needs to be studied more to consider a good balance between efficacy and safety.”
This isn’t the first male hormonal birth control method to show promise recently. The Telegraph reported last week that researchers in the U.K. developed a compound that temporarily deactivates a protein that puts the wiggle into a sperm’s tail. (As a result, the sperm can’t swim and fertilize any eggs.) However, that research is in its infancy—scientists hope to start testing on animals in three years.
A company based in San Francisco also has a product, called Vasalgel, that creates a seal in the male vas deferens (the tube that sperm travels through). The gels lets fluids pass through but filters out sperm, and clinical trials are expected to wrap up in 2018, per the company’s Facebook page.)
Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever, tells SELF that she’s not going to get excited about male birth control just yet. “Every few years another study comes out with potential contraception for men, and it never goes any place,” she says.
It’s not that male hormonal birth control is any more complicated than hormonal birth control for women, she says, but incentive is a concern. If two people are having sex and don’t want to get pregnant, ideally they’d both feel invested in preventing that outcome and would be willing to do their parts to avoid it. Unfortunately, that usually not how it goes. “Since the beginning of time, it’s the woman who has to take the responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy, and she’s the one who is highly incentivized to use contraception,” Streicher points out.
Trust is also a concern. “For the most part, women are going to want to ensure themselves that they’re protected against pregnancy,” Streicher says. (She points out that she has had a few patients whose sexual partners said they had had a vasectomy and hadn’t—the women ended up pregnant as a result.)
Throw potential side effects into the mix, and it can be a hard sell to get men to take something like this. Licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., tells SELF that hormones can have powerful effects on mood, and mood issues can be a problem when hormones are introduced to a person’s body. “We are still learning about the complex relationships between hormones and mood, and studies like this can offer new clues to these interactions,” she says.
Depression is one particular side effect drawing a lot of concern. “Depression can affect almost every area of your life in terms of dampening motivation, impeding concentration, and increasing emotional sensitivity,” she says. “Strong relationships depend on healthy intimacy and connection, all of which can be eroded by a depressed mood.”
S. Adam Ramin, M.D., a urologic surgeon and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles, tells SELF that there’s also some worry about using testosterone for years, which men would likely do if they used this form of hormonal birth control. “We don’t know what prolonged use of these hormones in men will cause,” he says. “However, we know that prolonged use of testosterone in men may cause shrinkage or atrophy in the testicles.” It may also stop men from being able to produce their own testosterone over time once they stop using birth control, he says.
“Is it possible that at these low doses testicular atrophy and loss of testosterone can be avoided? We don’t know that,” Ramin says. “There’s a lot of work to be done, including larger, long-term studies with more numbers of men.” Streicher agrees: “I applaud these efforts, and I think the research should continue, but I’m not highly optimistic that this is going to be the next big thing.”
So, it looks like there will still be some time before hormonal male birth control comes to fruition. Of course, any contraception that hits the market should be safe and with as few side effects as possible. But let’s be real: Women deal with many birth control-related side effects that came up in this study: depression, pain (while getting the Depo-Provera shot or during IUD insertions, for example), and libido problems. Until someone invents the perfect birth control, these symptoms are just part of the package many women accept in order to stay baby-free.
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