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”

DR DANIEL DUD­LEY

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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