I was 18 when I watched United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s 2014 address to the UN about gender equality. Growing up, my peers had only enforced the stereotype that the term “feminist” was simply a frivolous title, one that teenagers tossed around as trivially as other generic high-school classifiers like “goth” or “nerd.”
Watson’s speech stood out because she provided concrete examples of the everyday discrimination she faced throughout her life. That was when I first realized the imperative that was, and is, feminism, as well as its importance in breaking down the remaining barriers that prevent the equal treatment of women in American society. In an era of American politics in which many of our leaders seek to make Planned Parenthood defunct, defending contraception options is especially important in feminist discourse.
The progress of social activism is rarely linear, however. In particular, our society’s tendency to entrust an overwhelming portion of contraception responsibility to women is just one of the remaining anachronistic obstacles to gender equality.
And before you get ahead of yourself, reader, I have already considered the counterarguments to my stance. Contraception options for women are, after all, plentiful compared to those available to men.
Women have access to birth control pills, shots, implants, condoms and emergency contraception, while men have the exhilarating choice between using a condom or getting a vasectomy. Additionally, condoms have a real-world failure rate of around 15 percent and vasectomies are largely irreversible, so neither option is wholly on par with the more popular forms of birth control for women.
The discrepancy in options is probably the result of difficulty differences when it comes to suppressing fertility in women versus men. For one thing, small doses of hormones are used in the women’s birth control pills to prevent ovulation, but the required dose to stop sperm production is much higher, so a conventional birth control approach is much less feasible for men.
It should be noted, though, that there is a problem with arguing that all this is the sole cause of a lack of birth control options for men. After all, there is really no telling for sure which factors have made research on these options take as long as it has. Perhaps studies would have started or concluded sooner if the American male population were more interested in shouldering some of the contraception responsibility.
Despite all the aforementioned complications, researchers at the University of Washington are much closer to developing a commercially viable men’s birth control pill than you might assume, with few reported side effects so far. Essentially, in a few years, it seems the remaining obstacles to the adoption of birth control by men will be cultural, not scientific.
A 2017 poll by Healthline indicated that a majority of men would be opposed to taking a birth control pill, and a January 2019 poll by polling firm YouGov found that 50 percent of men were opposed to the idea because of possible side effects such as mood swings and weight gain.
The latter of these two polls is probably the most telling of the gendered birth control stereotypes that our culture experiences because mood swings and weight gain are also side effects of the birth control pill for women. The practical drawback to this inequality is that unintended pregnancy is far more than an inconvenience for women. In the absence of a range of viable birth control options, it seems that men have grown comfortable letting women bear the majority of that burden.
As with any multifaceted problem, a multifaceted solution is required to overcome what now presents yet another barrier to feminism and therefore gender equality. A commercially viable form of birth control for men is a great first step, but our society will subsequently have to learn to shift contraception responsibility toward men in order for that scientific development to prove effective.