“If you have to choose to keep one and lose the other—gun to your head—which do you lose? Your eyes or your penis?”
My favorite pastime is a long dinner with great food, better friends, and of course a cocktail (or four.) The last time I attended one of these, a friend of mine called the waiter over for extra input, and posed that question.
All the men present opted to keep their reproductive organ at the expense of their sight. Their reasons: “Stevie Wonder gets his, too” and “Ray Charles was a typical ladies’ man.” These men would rather go blind, than to lose their ability to have sex. Literally.
But the question doesn’t apply to women, many of whom enjoy sex, but aren’t defined by it. It’s especially relevant now that researchers are having serious conversations about the possibility of a male birth control hitting the market as soon as 2015. The method, while reversible, could reduce a man’s sperm count to zero, cutting off any immediate possibility of reproduction.
With the introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s, women were finally able enjoy the freedom to have sex without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. But men may not be so inclined to take such a medication. Psychotherapist and relationship expert, Mary Pender Greene says, “Men in general are very committed to the idea that being able to reproduce has a lot to do with how successful they are as men. Regardless of culture, men have historically been looked to for producing offspring. It’s a big deal.”
My male friends have a hard time with the idea of parting with their sexual organ because for them, it is a big part of their identity. Is it possible that there may be a great deal of resistance in the African American community to the male birth control concept because so much of a man’s ego is tied up in his sexuality and his ability to reproduce? A man who is up there in age, with children to brag about, is still often reluctant to get a vasectomy, a contrast to a woman’s willingness to take short and long term birth control, get her tubes tied, or have other surgeries to prevent a pregnancy she doesn’t want, despite numerous side effects.
Back at the dinner table, opinions vary on the issue of male contraception and vasectomies:
“Divorce rate is high. People remarry. The new woman might want to have a child. You want to keep your options open.”
“If I was done having kids, I would consider it. In a way, it would be liberating not to have to worry about knocking someone up. I would never ask a woman to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. Birth control for women has crazy side effects sometimes. And tubal ligation is stupid and risky. It’s just too much unnecessary surgery for my wife. Some dudes are so ignorant like its only about them, or that it makes them less of a man because they can’t drop babies at will.”
“We are so comfortable with the responsibility being on the woman,” said Chris Kazi Rolle, activist and life coach. “‘Why do I need to take a pill? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ With the history of medicine in this country, there is this fear that [scientists] have to do years of research and I have to wait to see how many people get sick first before I take something that is new on this market. I think many men would agree. 'What if my sperm doesn’t come back?'”
Society regards the man as the head of the traditional household and it is most often his name that is kept going in a family. Pender Greene comments, “For a man, so much of his manhood is based on how successful he is in conquering. A man having multiple children, whether married or not, is more accepted. For a woman, this is not so. It has less to do with race and ethnicity than it does economic status.” She harks on the idea that the more money somebody has, the more they can compete economically and compensate for not being able to have children. When they have less money, they tend to show that they are a success by having more children.
Historically, African American men have been on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder, so while the issue may not be directly related to race, it is indirectly. “I see people struggle with this all the time. When the male in the relationship is not able to reproduce, it impacts his sense of self differently than it would for a woman. A woman is more likely to be willing to adopt if it’s a matter of wanting children. For a man, it’s more about how they feel about themselves and what the world is going to think of them,” says Pender Greene.
Therefore, making a decision to take birth control would be much harder for men who don’t have a lot of money and are worried about risking not having children. In contrast, though research is lacking, Pender Greene suspects that the more educated and aware a person is, the more likely they are to be open to birth control, in terms of taking a non traditional approach. “There are many younger [educated] men who tend to have strong feelings about wanting more control over when they become fathers. I’ve worked with men who thought that their partner was on birth control when they were not, and finding out the truth about it later had been very devastating," says Pender Greene. "Using birth control themselves allows men to take control in that way…This approach gives them the ability to plan for parenthood and protect their career trajectory.”
Previously, it has been more of a challenge to stop a man from generating millions of sperm in contrast to a woman’s single egg a month, but the new procedure, in clinical trials, is thought to be 100 percent effective. Like the Depo-Provera shot for women, it requires men to receive an injection in the Vas deferens with a gel and works by breaking apart sperm.
Dr. Christina Wang, a professor at the UCLA Medical Center reminds us that market research on over 9000 men from 9 countries including the US indicated that about 50% of men would be willing to use male contraception. But would the reception be the same amongst African American men? We'll find out soon enough…
Read more on this topic here and continue the conversation with writer, Herina Ayot. She tweets @ReeExperience.