There are currently not very many male contraception methods available. Image adapted from: Doruk Salancı; CC BY-SA 3.0

It takes two to tango … and to make a baby.

Male contraceptives. Why so few?

It’s been 50 years since the oral contraceptive pill became available for women, and today, women have a lot of options when it comes to contraception—from intrauterine devices (IUDs) and vaginal rings to hormonal implants and injections. But for the other half? Not so much. No new contraceptives for men appeared on the market during the whole of the 20th century.

Apart from traditional (and hardly fail-safe) methods like withdrawal or the rhythm method (keeping track of a woman’s fertility cycle and only having sex when she’s in the infertile phases), men have two options: use a condom or have a vasectomy. Both have their issues. Condoms are very effective—when used perfectly. But throw a bit of human error into the heat of the moment and they can have a pretty high failure rate. A vasectomy, on the other hand, is an extremely effective form of contraception, but is designed to be permanent.

Condoms in their wrappers
Condoms or vasectomy are the only contraceptive options currently available for men. Image adapted from: Anqa; CC0

Are these options—condoms or vasectomies—really as good as it gets? For a long time, we’ve been hearing that male contraception is ‘just around the corner’. So where is it?

Maybe it’s just so much harder to suppress the production or activity of the gazillions of sperm men produce (anything between 15 and 200 million per millilitre of semen) compared to the single egg that women produce each month? Nope, not really. There have been lots of promising studies that have shown it’s possible to suppress sperm production.

Is it that guys just wouldn’t want to take a ‘male Pill’? Again, nope. Surveys across a number of countries indicate that over 50 per cent of men may be willing to take a male contraceptive if available, and that female partners would trust them to take it.

The primary barrier in the development of a male contraceptive is the fact that pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest in developing a product that they see as low profit and potentially high risk. In the absence of commercial interest, some non-profit groups and public-sector organisations, such as the World Health Organization, CONRAD (Contraception Research and Development), the Population Council (which developed the Mirena IUD for women) and the Parsemus Foundation are carrying out research and development in this area.

And research is ongoing. There are some promising leads, in both hormonal and non-hormonal options. So stay tuned ... solutions might be just around the corner!

This article was adapted from Academy website content reviewed by the following experts: Professor David Handelsman Professor of Medicine, ANZAC Research Institute, The University of Sydney; Laureate Professor John Aitken FAA Pro Vice-Chancellor, Office of the PVC Health and Medicine (Biological Sciences), The University of Newcastle