By Alexis Jones published
Even though women are fertile for just a few days each month and men are fertile for almost all their lives, we haven't seen much in the way of male birth control since the invention of the condom. (Which was almost two hundred years ago, if you wondered.) This could all change if a new topical gel birth control for men makes it through clinical trials, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and announced this week.
In the years since the invention of the humble condom, women have been provided with a wide array of birth control options, from IUDs to implants, sponges, patches, injections, and so on. This reproductive freedom is critical (and constantly under attack), but women should not have to bear the onus of responsibility when it comes to family planning. Other than a full vasectomy, men have no real birth control options beside the condom.
I called Julia Bunting, president of the Population Council, which is the nonprofit responsible for the development of the topical gel. Bunting told me this gel is putting the issue of male contraception on the agenda in a way that it hasn't before. "What's exciting about this product, and this field, is the ability to really start accelerating progress toward gender equality," said Bunting.
What To Know About The Gel
Believe me, I know a gel birth control sounds sketchy. And if a guy told me he was "taking" birth control and then proceeded to rub a gel-like substance on his shoulders, I would give him a heavy side-eye. But the technology behind the gel is actually pretty cool.
The gel is called NES/T. It includes the hormone Nestorone in combination with testosterone. Translation: When rubbed on the shoulders and lower back, Nestorone will block the naturally produced testosterone in the testes, reducing sperm to low or non-existent levels. Meanwhile, the testosterone in the gel will serve as a replacement testosterone—eliminating the side effects in previous male birth control studies, such as erectile dysfunction and low libido.
Researchers are planning to test 420 couples. The male volunteers will use the gel for four to 12 weeks to ensure they can tolerate the formula. Then, they'll move into a 52-week trial phase with their partners to test out the gel's ability to prevent pregnancy.
What A Doctor Thinks
I wanted to get a doctor's unbiased opinion, so I contacted Dr. Adrian Dobs, who specializes in male sex hormones. She's also the director of Johns Hopkins Clinical Research Network. In previous trials of male contraceptions, Dobs explains, the testosterone replacement idea just hasn't worked.
"People thought "Oh, lets just give high-dose testosterone, that’ll shut down the testes,'" Dobs says. But it didn’t reduce sperm to zero. High-dose testosterone reduced sperm counts, but not enough for you to call it a birth control agent. Still, Dobs is hopeful that by combining with progesterone, the NES/T gel could be effective.
"I can be optimistic about it," Dobs says. "Maybe they have just the right mix this time around."
The Potential Problems
One thing that Dobs brought up as a possible issue: The gel is intended to be applied to the shoulders and lower back area, which can be tricky to reach.
ABC News spoke with Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who was concerned about the women who may help their boyfriends or husbands apply the gel. "If the woman applies this to the man, she may absorb those hormones, which would and could impact her gynecological functioning," Ashton says.
Dobs isn't worried about women as much as she is children. For the first two hours after application, gels like these are still measurable on the skin's surface—which is why it's recommended not to shower for two hours after application. So, she explains, it's critical that the man doesn't hold his child near those application areas within the two hour window. Other than that, Dobs says that the rate of transference is pretty low.
"Men want to be in control, just as much as a woman want to be in control," Dobs says. Ultimately, should it get through clinical trials and a host of other FDA requirements, a contraceptive gel like thiscould do just that. Control, responsibility, whatever we decided to call it—it needs to be equal.
For more celebrity news, beauty and fashion advice, savvy political commentary, and fascinating features, sign up for the Marie Claire newsletter.
Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on WomensHealthmag.com, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness, while also contributing to the print magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, lives in Brooklyn, and proudly detests avocados.
The 12 Best Satin and Silk Hair Wraps for Your Natural Hair
Farewell to unruly hair days.
By Chelsea Hall
21 Black-Owned Handbag Brands to Know and Shop in 2022
Bookmark this page.
By Marina Liao
Royal Experts Say Kate Middleton Isn't Trying to Upstage Camilla Parker Bowles
The Duchess of Cambridge may look like a queen, but she knows how to wait her turn.
By Kathleen Walsh
The 17 Best Sex Games to Spice Up Date Night With
Game night, but make it hot.
By The Editors
The 56 Most Popular Vibrators, Reviewed by Experts
The most trusted source in feelin' yourself.
By Alanna Greco
COVID Forced My Polyamorous Marriage to Become Monogamous
For Melanie LaForce, pandemic-induced social distancing guidelines meant she could no longer see men outside of her marriage. But monogamy didn't just change her relationship with her husband—it changed her relationship with herself.
By Melanie LaForce
Four Flirting Fun Facts--With Research to Back Them Up!
My pal Judy Dutton just wrote an excellent new book: How We Do It: How the Science of Sex Can Make You a Better Lover. She's chatted with me about the psychological studies that show how best to flirt; what kind of pick-up lines work best; and what you're really saying with your body language.
By Maura Kelly
100 Sex Songs That Won't Make You Cringe
Dim the lights and hit play on this sex songs — the perfect playlist of songs to have sex to.
By The Editors
75 Movie Sex Scenes That Are 100 Percent Real
These actors aren't faking anything.
By Mehera Bonner
33 Unexpected Valentine's Day 2022 Date Ideas
A.k.a. not dinner and roses.
By The Editors
Cult Status Satisfyer Vibrators Are Under $40 for Prime Day
4 stars, 16k reviews...yeah, this vibe's got a massive fan club (for good reason).
By Carina Hsieh