A Valentines Day twist: long-term male birth control

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Everyone knows that many couples were acting like rabbits this Valentine’s Day. A lesser-known fact is that a certain group of lab rabbits can now perform their idiom without actually reproducing — and humans will soon have access to the same male contraceptives that allowed the rabbits to do so.

Vasalgel is a male contraception method that has been proven effective in rabbits and will be available to the public as early as 2018. The treatment is a fully reversible long-term male birth control (LTMBC) in the form of a gel that is injected into the vas deferens to block sperm that swim through during ejaculation. It has no effect on ejaculation and seminal fluids can still be released, just without sperm.

Maureen Lounsbury (senior) did her sociology comprehensive project on male attitudes towards Vasalgel and other male birth control methods. According to Lounsbury’s advisor for the project, sociology Professor Jan Lin, Lounsbury’s research on the sociology of health and medicine is a lesser-studied topic.

“There is not that much consciousness or knowledge of these long-term contraception methods yet among men in the U.S.,” Lin said.

Lounsbury became interested in male attitudes on their role in their birth control during Sociology Professor Littlejohn’s Health and Illness class and researched it further last summer. She came across studies on two new forms of male contraception: Vasalgel and hormonal pills.

Researchers are designing male hormonal pills to work similarly to female birth control pills, though they are far from ready for clinical trials. Vasagel, on the other hand, is closer on the horizon. Researchers from the Parsemus Foundation — a private foundation that funds low-cost solutions neglected by the pharmaceutical industry — began preclinical animal testing in 2013 and project human trials to start this year.

Parsemus Foundation researchers reported Vasagel to be effective in rabbits and baboons for just over a year, and rabbit studies have shown rapid restoration of sperm flow when researchers flushed out Vasalgel with an injection of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) solution. They do not know yet how many years Vasalgel will be effective.

Lounsbury conducted a study that examined how 170 college-age males view their role in the birth control process; if they are open to taking on more responsibility for birth control and methods to which they are open. She constructed a survey and sent it out to male students at Occidental and other colleges using websites such as Reddit.

According to Lin, Lounsbury’s survey included brief questions with responses that could be quantitatively enumerated as well as qualitative open-ended questions that articulated the subjective opinions of respondents. Lounsbury was not able to reach a goal of 200 respondents in her online survey.

“Perhaps some men still consider contraception a private matter that they don’t want to be surveyed,” Lin said.

The survey included questions about factors that make the participant more or less likely to discuss birth control with their partner, how often they use birth control and whether relationship status affects birth control use. Lounsbury created a slider scale on which participants rated their openness to using male birth control—Vasalgel, hormone pills and vasectomy. Participants could also list their reasoning and reservations on the survey.

The results showed that, on average, males across all age and relationship statuses rated their openness to male birth control a 7.1 out of 10. Additionally, 91 percent of respondents thought that birth control was a mutual responsibility between couples. In her quest to uncover any trends related to race, age and relationship status, Lounsbury found that people in relationships were more likely to say that they would use a long-term method of male birth control.

White respondents had the highest levels of openness, and Asian/Pacific Islanders had the lowest, according to Lin. He also said that Lounsbury hypothesized that men of color would be more open to long-term contraceptives, and she found that men of color used contraception at high rates most of the time or every time.

Based off of her literature review, Lounsbury thought that younger people would be more open to LTMBC, but her study showed the opposite trend. However, the age range was limited to college-aged men.

Another surprising result of her study was that most respondents who said they would be willing to use long-term male birth control said that they would prefer using a hormonal pill versus a non-hormonal injection of Vasalgel. Lounsbury attributes the fear of needles to this preference, even though the quick procedure allows men to have more control over their fertility.

Despite some responses expressing strong opposition to LTMBC, Lounsbury said that the response was overwhelmingly positive because many respondents supported the use of LTMBC in order to relieve responsibility from women in birth control.

“Most of the results made me feel inspired,” Lounsbury said.

Lounsbury said that the respondents to her study were somewhat homogenous, as most of them were Occidental students, and very few studies have been conducted around the world on the same topic. She said the study would benefit from surveying more people across larger age groups and conducting interviews. She hopes that the predominantly positive attitude would persist on a bigger scale so that men can begin to bear responsibility for safe sex.

“Doing this research made me realize that ever since ‘the pill’ was invented in the 50s, girls have been getting the short end of the stick,” Lounsbury said.

Lin is optimistic about the study’s implication on the future era of sexual health.

“Her anticipatory research suggests that once long-term contraception is available for men, college-aged men will likely be open and more willing to shoulder the burden of contraception where now it chiefly falls upon women when the scenario is long-term contraception,” Lin said.