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A birth control pill for men?

Rock was wrong. The male pill was nowhere in sight.  Researchers felt stymied by what seemed to be insurmountable hurdles standing in the way.  The most intractable were the men themselves.  In 1970, Boston Globe columnist Dr. Lindsay R. Curtis relayed a conversation he had with a woman he identified as Helen, an ardent feminist who was “disgusted” with the lack of progress on a male pill.  “It’s the same old story, male domination…Why not let the ever-loving husband take his turn and allow a few experiments performed on him for a change?”  Dr. Curtis responded by explaining that there were male contraceptives in the works, but that more time was needed to test their safety and effectiveness.  He also noted that men do not have the same stake in contraception:   “What it boils down to is this: women can get pregnant; men can’t.”  There were also psychological effects.  “Generally speaking, a man equates his ability to impregnate a woman with masculinity.  And all too often the loss of such ability really deflates his ego.”  Helen replied, “Might be just what a lot of egotistical males need.”[xvi] Needed or not, the male libido seemed to be the primary preoccupation in any discussion of a pill for men.  Although there was evidence that the oral contraceptive could negatively affect women’s sex drive, that particular side effect was dismissed as unimportant.

As early as 1965, Gregory Pincus articulated the problem: “Male volunteers for fertility control studies may be numbered in the low hundreds whereas women have volunteered for similar studies by the thousands…he [the human male] has psychological aversions to experimenting with sexual functions…perhaps experimental studies of fertility control in men should be preceded by a thorough investigation of male attitudes.”[xvii] In the 1970s, sexuality remained a central concern in the male contraceptive trials.  A 1974 report to the World Health Organization urged  researchers to develop a reversible male contraceptive that would not compromise libido or potency.   Even though  male sexual functioning  improved in clinical trials as researchers experimented with new compounds, worries about reduced libido continued.  The real obstacle was convincing men to take the pill, as John Rock noted in 1966. Another researcher believed that extensive education would be necessary because the “delicate male psyche equates virility with fertility.”[xviii] As late as the 1990s, a Dutch researcher noted, “The Pill for men inhibits libido.  This might be considered an advantage – refraining from sex constitutes a perfect contraceptive – but men don’t take the Pill to refrain from sex.”[xix]