‘That Birth Control Study’ is Not a Case Of Whining Men

If you haven’t heard about ‘that birth control study’ yet, here’s what the media has been saying: a study on a new contraceptive shot for men was discontinued because “men can’t handle the side effects women face daily” because they, apparently, fragile crybabies.

I’ve seen half a dozen friend groups, all female, laughing on my Facebook feeds at how weak and pathetic men are are. After all, isn’t it ridiculous that men are whining about acne and injection pain, while women have been bravely facing these symptoms — and much more — on a daily basis?

The side effects of female contraceptives are no joke, certainly. But is that really an excuse for ridiculing men? The messages that men are bombarded with daily — messages that say weakness makes them less of a person, that pressure them just to ‘suck it up’ and move on with their lives — creates a culture of toxic masculinity that is linked to homophobia, sexism, and staggering rates of male suicide. I’m therefore skeptical of any news story I see making fun of men for being weak, but the narrative surrounding this contraceptive study is particularly insidious.

To explain why, I’ll start by saying what should be obvious: the participants didn’t rise up in arms and shut down the study because they were getting acne. That’s a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

First of all, while participants are always allowed to drop out of a study, they have no say in the decision to continue research or not. The article clearly states that an external review committee recommended that study be shut down because the risks they were exposing the participants to far outweighed the benefits of male birth control. This is hardly a case of whining men — this is a case of ethical human research.

And it sure isn’t about acne. One of the participants took their own life. Although the review has not determined that the suicide was a direct side effect of the injection, there were many reports of depression, mood disorders, and other drastic changes in mood associated with the contraceptive — 118 reports, to be exact. A fourth of the cases of clinically significant mood disorders, alone, were determined to be “definitely” caused by the injection. The majority of all cases, in all categories, were at least “probably” caused by it.

These are hardly symptoms that anyone — the ones experiencing them or the researchers themselves — can easily dismiss. So why is the predominant message, haha, men, you’re so weak?

Some might say that the fact that female contraceptives are also associated with mood disorders — that the pill  can almost double your risk of depression  —  means that the criticism of men’s ‘inability to deal’ is warranted. If we have to deal with it, why can’t they?

And, if you’re the sort of person who would laugh at a woman who quit the pill because she developed depression, that argument might work. But I sure hope you’re not that kind of person. If you’re instead like me, then you believe that anyone in a situation that’s dangerous for their mental health should have the right to get out as quickly as they possibly can.

And please realize — this isn’t even the same situation. These aren’t women who, when presented with a wide range of birth control options, are able to weigh the pros and cons of each method and choose the one whose side effects they are willing and able to deal with. These are men who are being prompted by scientists to take a single option for birth control when they have no idea what the side effects are. They don’t have all the information to make an informed decision. These participants have entrusted scientists with their endocrine and reproductive systems, and these scientists decided that the risk they were exposing them too was too great to continue with the study.

Hands down, the scientists did the right thing. It’s not right to expose unwitting men to these risks. Considering that the history of female birth control is full of unethical testing and gross violations of human rights, I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

And yes, certainly, it’s not right to expect women to assume all the risks of birth control. But instead of laughing at men — haha, you can’t handle depression? — shouldn’t we instead push for better, safer options for all?

Photo credit: stevendepolo via Foter.com / CC BY

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