(No, they aren’t devices for making sure all your children are girls…)
Male contraceptives is a bit of an interesting area. Right now, there’s essentially just the one mass-marketed male contraceptive, which we’re all familiar with, our friend the condom. And of course, there’s vasectomies, which are pretty much permanent. Lesser-known do-it-yourself methods like special underwear or heat methods for temporary infertility are also possible. In contrast, there’s too many female contraceptives to count on one hand, although you can probably manage it if you just keep it down to just the really effective ones.
One of the big myths about male contraceptives is that there’s no real need for them, or at least no demand. For instance, many stories on the development of a male pill air the attitude from some less-enlightened women that they would not trust men to deal with contraception. That’s fine- they don’t have to. Male contraception isn’t about women. It’s about men being able to decide independently of their partners whether they want to have children. It could mean less single or teenage mothers. It means that couples (or singles 😉 ) have the option of taking up to three or four redundant methods of birth control, greatly minimizing the risk of unwanted pregnancy.
If there’s not an indication of demand now, that’s simply because few people have really considered that sexual liberation could have a second wave. (or perhaps a third wave, if you want to go back further) While sex-negative commentators at the time were concerned that widespread hormonal birth control would lead to parental irresponsibility. However, in my view quite the opposite has happened- as parenthood has increasingly become a choice, people are more likely to save childhood for more stable family environments. The appearance of relationships breaking down more often is far more likely related to the fact that we allow no-fault divorce and seperation now, and that we’re a little more open with our relationship failures than before.
This third wave could see a similar increase in sexual responsibility. Also, while it may not mean much for women in terms of their own sexual choices, it could have a big impact on a prominent negative stereotype of women. With sexual responsibility comes sexual power, and putting low-profile contraception in the hands of both genders restores a sense of sexual power to men, whether they’re justified in feeling they’ve lost it or not. And this directly effects one of the most sinister views of women: that they use sex as a weapon. That women, underneath, are just out to get us, and that they’ll do it through paternity fraud, or through emotional manipulation. And seeing that old saw rusted would be a very welcome sight indeed.
Sociological impact aside, the male pill is not the only new male birth control concept that’s on the horizon. There are essentially two approaches to male contraception: blocking sperm from somehow reaching the egg, and inhibiting the production of sperm so that any that do develop are unable or unlikely to fertilize an egg. Some methods use both approaches at once. The condom, for instance, is a blocking method. Heat methods, suspensories, (the special underwear I mentioned earlier) the male pill, and several other methods inhibit sperm production. There’s an experimental birth control method called RISUG that uses both methods, and avoids some of the nasty health side-effects of some of the more sophisticated blocking methods.
If you’d like more information on male contraceptives, this site has excellent overviews of several practical and experimental methods.