Life

What’s It Like to Be on Male Birth Control?

Man Up host Aymann Ismail talks to someone who participated in a study of contraception for men.

Photo illustration of Aymann Ismail and a back of birth control.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lisa Larson Walker and shawshot/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The burden of contraception still falls overwhelmingly on women, though scientists have made progress on hormonal options for men. On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail looked into the disparity of responsibility—and his own complicity in it. He spoke to Rufaro Huggins, who for the past two years has participated in a contraception study at the University of Washington School of Medicine that had him take a pill that significantly lowers sperm count. A transcript of Aymann and Rufaro’s conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Aymann Ismail: We know that for female contraception, there are a lot of side effects. But they take it anyway. Does the regimen that you were participating in have any side effects?

Rufaro Huggins: No, actually, it didn’t. The only thing that I saw that was different was a little bit of weight gain, because in the testing process of the drug you have to consume 25 grams of fat in taking it. And of course you want to take the tablet in the morning. For me, that’s not my normal consumption, so I had to kind of figure out my diet. If [the pill] hits the marketplace, if that’ll be a requirement, I’m not sure, but that was the only side effect that I saw.

A part of me still feels, I don’t know, maybe less masculine if I were to …

I think that, No. 1, the discharge of what’s happening doesn’t change. You still have all the other pleasures and effects that you would normally have. Of course the [sperm] count, to be able to reproduce, changes. When you are off that drug, from my experience of being in the research study, it’s only a matter of weeks until you balance back out. So if you were saying, “Hey, I’m now in a relationship” or “I just don’t feel masculine anymore, and I don’t want to take this drug anymore,” you can definitely stop taking the drug and reverse that process just in a matter of weeks.

That’s crazy.

So if it’s a weight of masculinity or not, my personal perspective, at least, is all the other pleasures and experiences that you would have would still be the same. And if you want to have that other experience of having a larger sperm count, then you would just not take the drug anymore.

This sounds too good to be true. I’m waiting for the fine print.

I mean, that’s the science. I’m giving you the science. This is based off the data that I’ve been able to see about my own personal participation. I’ll soon be going in for my last visit, because my sperm count is back up. So it’s just a matter of weeks to say, “OK, I’m off the drug now. I’m going back to normal.” And like I said, everything else that you normally would experience as a man with, you know, intercourse or whatever is there.

Can you tell me about how you feel now that you’ve done this for so long? Knowing that you’ve shared the responsibility, what kind of emotions does that bring out of you?

I’m more analytical than emotional in my lifestyle, just because I have to balance my emotions in what I do. But as far as sharing responsibility is concerned, I feel proud to know that, No. 1, I get to participate in a study like this. No. 2, that I’m sharing responsibility. That’s where we’re always gearing toward, in the workplace or in different social dynamics or professional dynamics—it’s about trying to be balanced to our counterparts. And so in my relationship with my wife, one of the intentions was to say, “Hey, can I be a part of something that will balance out the responsibility?”

So is your hope that this new experimental drug will hit the market and then you can give your wife the choice to not be on birth control?

Absolutely. The side effects of the other options that are out there for women change their menstruation. So anything that would definitely improve her health and emotion and every other part of what the female body goes through, I would totally be on board for making that personal sacrifice.

So for some reason, and maybe it’s because I’m still a 12-year-old at heart, the image keeps coming to mind of the snake losing its venom. Is it a snake anymore? I keep thinking about whether the ability to procreate is intrinsically tied to our worth as men to our partners.

I would say I don’t believe that’s true. You use the snake analogy, which I like because we all know that more than just the venom, the snake is like a muscle in that it can contract and squeeze. There are other qualities about us as people that we still get a chance to exercise that should provide a sense of self-worth. So that’s one of the reasons why, for me personally, I don’t feel as though—because maybe I can’t produce for a few weeks, or if I’m only doing it for a short period of time and that might affect me in some way—that’s why I don’t look at it like that. The interaction that I can have with another human being, whether it’s a male or female, is much greater than just that one part of it. There’s just so much more beauty in masculinity than just that side of it, and I think that we all have to tap into what that is and what that means for us individually. But I think there’s definitely uniqueness in each and every one of us within that perspective of masculinity versus what feels unmasculine. So I would definitely say no.

To listen to the full episode, including conversations with a urologist and a couple considering a vasectomy, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.