Men’s birth control flips the script

By Kyle Rich

Scientific discoveries often originate as accidents. Penicillin was developed after a workstation wasn’t cleaned properly and an antibacterial mold was discovered. Radioactivity was first noted when minerals and equipment were left in a desk after they were unable to be used for another experiment. LSD was originally created as a drug to cure the pain of childbirth, and its hallucinogenic effects were only revealed five years later after a scientist accidentally absorbed a dose while not wearing gloves. Now another unintended scientific discovery could change the way we think about safe sex.

A two-year collaboration between the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Martin Matzuk Baylor College of Medicine has resulted in the discovery of a molecule, originally developed as an attempt to block cancer-causing genes by making cancer cells “forget” that they are cancerous, but which appears to be a male birth control agent.

The molecule is called JQ1, and while it has only been tested on male mice, it appears to have severely stunted sperm production in mice testes, according to an article published in the journal Cell last month. Its effects are leading scientists to believe it could reduce sperm count to a level that won’t cause pregnancy. If the molecule is fully developed and FDA-approved, it could be administered in pill form and won’t have hormonal effects or negatively affect sperm count once users stop taking it, according to the article.

While this discovery is a breakthrough in contraceptives, it challenges traditional views of contraceptive responsibility and gender roles. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist specializing in gender studies, said he believes male birth control could raise questions of the meaning of masculinity.

“On one hand, you could say [one is] not a real man because [society] never exactly coded responsibility as particularly masculine behavior,” Kimmel said. “[We see it as] far more masculine to be irresponsible and not really care much. On the other hand, if [a man] has to take a male contraceptive, obviously he’s getting some [responsibility].”

Eric Anderson, a sociologist specializing in sexuality and masculinity studies, said he believes a decrease in perceived masculinity can actually lead to a new wave of men taking charge of their own sexual health.

“There is a hyper-masculine reaction of, ‘No, I’m not going to do that, even though it’s easier for men,” Anderson said. “The masculinity that characterizes that sort of, ‘You’re not going to touch my nuts’ is decreasing. Men have become less hyper-masculine. They’ve become softer; they’ve become more inclusive, more open with their feelings and willing to cry. It permits them to take better charge of their health, even if it counters dominant trends.”

If the pill were to be readily available to both men and women, whom

does the responsibility fall upon? The Chronicle interviewed students to gather opinions.

“I feel like, because women have taken it for so long, it should be men’s turn,” said Anastacia Favela, freshman broadcast journalism major. “When you see a pregnant young woman on the street she’s judged more. It’s the girl who gets the heat, not the guy.”

Some students believe in a collective responsibility.

“I do believe in equality, so I think it should be both [men and women],” said Jacqueline Irigoyen, a sophomore magazine journalism major.

A big factor in this debate is the lack of trust that can occur between men and women. While Anderson has done research on university students who say “use a condom because you never know,” he still speculates that if birth control were available to both men and women, women would have a harder time trusting a man to be on it responsibly. However, Anderson said he believes this all-around distrust can be a good thing.

“I think anything that allows men or women to take charge of their own sexual health, to be responsible sexual citizens, is a fantastic improvement,” Anderson said.