Meet the male birth con­trol ac­tivists 116 Trend­ing:

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents - Words by Danielle Fried­man

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ifAphiwe Thusi, 34, never had to wear a con­dom again, he’d be a happy man. But the graphic de­signer doesn’t want kids any­time soon and knows that his fi­ancée has had to carry the bur­den of their birth con­trol for three and a half years. The lack of con­tra­cep­tive op­tions for men has left him frus­trated, won­der­ing, ‘Why isn’t there an equiv­a­lent to the pill for men?’

“My whole adult life I’ve had this kind of weird, pow­er­less feel­ing around pre­vent­ing preg­nancy,” says Aphiwe. That’s why, for the past sev­eral years, he has not only tracked the de­vel­op­ment of a new male birth con­trol – an in­jectable called Vasal­gel that would tem­po­rar­ily pre­vent the re­lease of sperm – but also do­nated money to re­searchers and of­fered to par­tic­i­pate in clin­i­cal tri­als.

Since the pill first de­buted in the ’60s, dozens more birth con­trol op­tions for women have been de­vel­oped, in­clud­ing the patch, the im­plant, the shot, the vagi­nal ring and five IUDS. Men still have ba­si­cally three op­tions: con­doms, va­sec­tomies and pulling out (the lat­ter, for most, is not a great op­tion). “We’re ne­glect­ing 50% of our pop­u­la­tion by not hav­ing new meth­ods for men,” says Dr Stephanie Page, an en­docri­nol­o­gist and a leader in the ef­fort to de­velop hor­monal birth con­trol for men.

De­spite years of head­lines about a pos­si­ble male pill, re­searchers say any new male con­tra­cep­tive is still five to 10 years away. One rea­son for the lag: a per­ceived lack of in­ter­est. Pro­po­nents say they’re up against deeply in­grained cul­tural at­ti­tudes that con­tra­cep­tion is a women’s is­sue. But 13 years ago, a study sug­gested that nearly half of men would be on board with us­ing a new con­tra­cep­tive if one were avail­able. Now, some are start­ing to de­mand it. Mo­men­tum is start­ing to build.

A biotech start-up is rac­ing to de­velop a com­pet­ing ver­sion of the gel Aphiwe sup­ports. Sci­en­tists are even run­ning clin­i­cal tri­als for other meth­ods – a pill, a trans­der­mal gel and an in­jec­tion – that would tem­po­rar­ily in­hibit sperm pro­duc­tion. And the In­sti­tute of Health will soon em­bark on a ma­jor global trial of a dif­fer­ent gel that would in­hibit testos­terone to halt sperm pro­duc­tion. Ex­perts es­ti­mate that if a new male birth con­trol method were to come out in the next five years, it would be a R14 bil­lion busi­ness by 2024.

Per­haps most im­por­tant, men are start­ing to rally be­hind th­ese op­tions, say­ing they want birth con­trol and they want it now. And man, do their rea­sons sound fa­mil­iar.

“I want the free­dom to be able to achieve my dreams” MIR­A­CLE DIALA

Young men are more likely than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions to want to be equal part­ners at home, so it makes sense that some are su­per aware of how par­ent­hood would im­pact their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tions. Mir­a­cle Diala, 22, first learnt about male birth con­trol while re­search­ing it for a univer­sity ora­tory com­pe­ti­tion. He wound up win­ning a na­tional tour­na­ment with his speech in favour of de­vel­op­ing a non-hor­monal method for men and has re­mained an ad­vo­cate for it since. First he plans to at­tend med­i­cal school; next up, he hopes to re­turn home and bring med­i­cal care to the com­mu­nity. “The prospect of ru­in­ing that goal due to a mis­take is hon­estly fright­en­ing,” he says. Mir­a­cle be­lieves that male birth con­trol would of­fer men what the pill made pos­si­ble for women decades ago. “They were able to have that agency, to know for sure they would be able to con­trol their own fer­til­ity,” he says. “Any­thing I could do to se­cure my plans would be a god­send.”

“It’s my last hope for not hav­ing to use the bar­rier method”

RI­CARDO VIERA Women have long un­der­stood the im­por­tance of hav­ing choices about their re­pro­duc­tive health. Pro­po­nents of male birth con­trol, like Ri­cardo Viera, 40, want the same – namely, a method they’d find less cum­ber­some than con­doms and less in­va­sive than a va­sec­tomy.

When Ri­cardo’s wife was preg­nant with their third child ( his fourth), they agreed it would be their last. “Four is enough!” says the real es­tate and prop­erty man­ager. His wife didn’t re­act well to her hor­monal IUD, so she sug­gested he look into a va­sec­tomy. He doesn’t love the idea of sev­er­ing his tubes, so if a clin­i­cal trial for a new method were to come to his area, he says, “I’d be the first one there, with bells on.”

“I want kids when the time is right”


The stakes of hav­ing pe­nis-in-vag­ina sex will al­ways be higher for women, but plenty of men take the risk of un­in­tended preg­nancy se­ri­ously, enough that it im­pacts the qual­ity of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Sex can al­most feel like some­thing to fear,” says Har­ri­son Wiesert, 20, a mu­si­cian who learnt about Vasal­gel three years ago and has been fol­low­ing its progress through the prod­uct’s Face­book page (@vasal­gel). “I have had many friends make one mis­take, and now they are fathers. No one de­serves that amount of re­spon­si­bil­ity for shar­ing love with some­one else.”

Sev­eral men we spoke to said money is a key mo­ti­va­tor – they want to avoid be­com­ing par­ents be­fore they’re able to pro­vide for a kid. “I’m busy with school right now, and my part­ner’s also busy with school right now,” says Dr Daniel Dud­ley, 28, a fam­ily medicine res­i­dent physi­cian. “I want to be a par­ent some­day, but I’d want to be more fi­nan­cially sta­ble and have more re­sources to sup­port the fam­ily.” He’s not even en­ter­tain­ing the idea of kids un­til he’s done work­ing overnight shifts dur­ing his res­i­dency. “I see in my pa­tients so of­ten that when a preg­nancy is un­planned, the fam­ily suf­fers,” he says. Mean­while, he has par­tic­i­pated in three dif­fer­ent clin­i­cal tri­als for hor­monal birth con­trol – slather­ing him­self daily with a top­i­cal gel for one, re­ceiv­ing a butt in­jec­tion for an­other and tak­ing two pills a day for a month for the third. In case you’re won­der­ing: he didn’t mind any of the meth­ods, but says the in­jec­tion was the most con­ve­nient.

“I want to have com­plete con­trol over my re­pro­duc­tive rights” ANELE NGESI

Sev­eral of the men we spoke with were also aware of the is­sues their part­ners had ex­pe­ri­enced while on birth con­trol. “I’d take a pill to pre­vent my part­ner from ex­pe­ri­enc­ing side ef­fects of con­tra­cep­tion,” says Anele Ngesi, 33, an ar­chi­tect who has been cham­pi­oning male birth con­trol among friends since he was in univer­sity. “There are so many small things she does to sup­port me; this would be just an­other way I could sup­port her.” Gen­der equal­ity and equal ac­cess to health care came up again and again with the (ad­mit­tedly en­light­ened) men we spoke to. “It’s not a fe­male re­pro­duc­tive rights is­sue; it’s not a male re­pro­duc­tive rights is­sue,” says Anele. “It’s a hu­man is­sue.” Women agree.

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