Male birth control coverage in the media misses the mark

Poor reporting hinders campus birth control progress 

If you want to believe recent headlines, cargo shorts will be the closest thing to male birth control for now. 

News outlets like USA Today and Buzzfeed recently suggested a promising new male birth control method was curtailed because participants couldn’t deal with common side effects. 

Besides implying that the men in the study were ‘wimps’ for not being able to put up with the drug’s side effects —  some of which, they stated, are common side effects for female contraception —  these article didn’t achieve much else.

The media’s misrepresentation of the study detracts from actual discussion around the development of male birth control. While the responsibility of contraception shouldn’t fall solely on women, as it unfortunately does in our society, the inaccuracy of some of these reports drive men further away from sharing the responsibility. 

The issue at hand isn’t whether it’s the responsibility of a man or woman for putting up with intolerable side effects, the issue is that neither should. 

Contrary to sensationalized headlines like “Men pull out of male birth control trial after experiencing side effects”, only 20 participants of the study’s 320 total subjects dropped out, citing side effects. The remaining 300 carried on until it was cancelled.

The real reason why the study ended earlier than scheduled, was a decision made by two independent committees overseeing the safety of the study. It was concluded that because of a concern about the high number of side effects, “the risks to the study participants outweighed the potential benefits”, according to the study’s press release.

It wasn’t about men not liking the side effects and preferring women take on the burden instead, it was about safety. And while this study might have concluded it doesn’t mean the option for male contraception is being thrown in the trash.

75 per cent of the study’s participants were satisfied with the contraception method and stated they’d be willing to continue taking birth control. The study’s press release even stated that “given the efficacy and acceptability of this method, despite side effects, there continues to be a strong rationale for continuing research.”

But this is still unchartered territory. Looking at some of the  headlines, there seems to be more of a concern with the men’s inability to put up with the side effects than with safety as a whole. And while some studies suggest women experience similar side effects, the two shouldn’t be pitted against each other. 

Contraception and its side effects should be a shared responsibility and it shouldn’t continue to be the sole responsibility of women. But female contraception has been tested and developed for years, passing presumably similar safety standards to this recent test.

The media’s misrepresentation of this case isn’t just wrong, it distracts from real debates occurring in the development of male birth control and birth control in general. It trades in analysis for a cheap headline and joke about men that can’t handle side effects.

The safety of hormonal contraception is already questionable. Regardless of gender, a user may not always receive the necessary medical counsel.

The misrepresentation of this case affects campus sexual culture especially. So far, the male role in contraception has been limited to sterilization, condoms, and, according to my grade 9 health teacher, “withdrawal.” For conversations about shared responsibility to start, there needs to be a less aggressive and accusatory approach to researching options for male contraception.

A 2013 NCHA survey revealed that birth control pills were the most common contraceptive on Queen’s campus. 

Condoms trailed closely behind but the bulk of the responsibility still fell on female Queen’s students.

Counteracting this asymmetry needs to be researched but, we can’t expect to see an immediate change to happen overnight.

Instead of blaming participants for the committees’ decisions, these articles would be better served asking why there’s a lack of male birth control in the first place and exploring how much funding funnels into it. 

The deeper issue is the lack of funding from pharma companies. According to an article in The Guardian, there’s skepticism over whether men will buy contraceptives. Consequently, prospective funding dries up for a possible male counterpart to the pill.

We need to signal that men are ready to share contraception responsibilities, even if the prejudicial coverage of male birth control studies indicates we’re not yet ready for equal sexual responsibility. 

Male and female students could benefit from more information about contraceptives but they’re unlikely to get it from media. 

There are real concerns involved in this debate: market viability, the health of contraceptive users and shared responsibility between genders. But click-bait headlines rarely lead to honest and accurate discussion. 

We should demand more from professional news organizations reportedly informing the public and our campus.

There’s a valuable future for male birth control on campus — but don’t trust lazy journalism.

Nick Pearce is a third-year Global Development Studies student.

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