Darren McGarvey: I now realise why men must embrace the male pill

Male contraceptive pills have side-effects, but then so does the female version (Picture: Getty)
Male contraceptive pills have side-effects, but then so does the female version (Picture: Getty)
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“I’m on the pill” is not a phrase I would ever have expected to utter in my lifetime. That pill being the contraceptive pill. The reason for that is very simple: I’m a man and have never had to take it – because that’s something women do.

I’m grateful to be able to say that I can now see the absurdity in that entitled attitude, though it’s been a slow awakening at times.

If I examine my life honestly, this same attitude can be found in many other areas of my life too. Not surprising really. I spent much of my childhood at my grandparents where a very specific kind of gender dynamic was modelled for me: my granny did all the housework, cooked all the dinners and organised and attended to the almost every domestic or family related task – because that was something women did. As a kid I had no reason to question what, on the surface, appeared completely normal. But I’d be lying if I said this did not have a formative impact on my own attitudes later in life. Sometimes this was subtle, others more overt, but spending so much time in a male-dominated environment like that is bound to rub off on you whether you like it or not.

For example, I grew up believing women were just naturally more caring than men. That females were imbued with a special instinct to nurture family and this explained why they always wanted to take care of everyone. It didn’t occur to me until later that this was not always the case.

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These days, though there is still a long way to go, such attitudes around gender roles are subject to increasing scrutiny, as they should be. I know I have certainly found this challenging at certain points, especially when asked to reconsider deeply held assumptions about women and gender more broadly. It’s easy to become defensive. Over time (and sometimes grudgingly), I’ve found a way to deal with those feelings of irritation or personal discomfort. It’s clearer than ever that most women I know have, to some extent, either suffered or had to bear some burden I haven’t, precisely because of entitled male attitudes and how they find expression both culturally and institutionally.

Nowhere does the issue of gender inequality rear its head more undeniably than the lop-sided area of contraception.

Many types of birth control – including injections, implants and the pill — have been made available to women since the 1960s. Incidentally, in all that time, despite the massive strides forward in both medicine and gender equality, a similar contraceptive option for men has eluded us. That’s not to say we haven’t tried to get men on the pill, but the big barrier to it so far has been – you guessed it – men themselves.

Studies tended to conclude that there were just too many adverse side effects of the male pill, which included mood swings, depression, skin outbreaks, irritability, weight gain and headaches – all of which are common side-effects of the current contraceptive pill that women get. There were also questions around liver inflammation and other complications that are perhaps less hypocritical, but still…

The implications here are far from insignificant. As well as often bearing the responsibility for contraception in their sexual relationships, women must also accept whichever combination of unpleasant side-effects come with it, whether long-term or the discomfort of undergoing minor, but invasive, surgical procedures.

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The pill is not the only method available to guard against getting pregnant. But of all the current contraceptives on the market, the pill is popular, not just because it’s straightforward, but also because it allows for a more pleasurable sexual experience – for the man who doesn’t have to wear a condom (which, of course, also offers protection against STDs).

To my shame, I remember recoiling from a sexual encounter with a former partner, early in our relationship, because she asked me to strap up. This is embarrassing to admit, not least because the only reason I did not want to wear one was because I knew it would affect my performance. By that point, years of pornography had rendered me rather insensitive to intercourse, never mind the additional barrier of placing a small plastic bag over my equipment. Though again, it took me a long time to realise this conundrum was rooted in entitlement. Entitlement to pleasurable sex, entitlement to not have to worry about contraception and the wider issue of entitlement to free pornography – the root of my predicament – and by extension, the labour of female sex workers.

Only years later did it occur to me what a shocking attitude this really was and how hurtful/infuriating/annoying that may have been for my partner at the time. This forces me to consider what false belief or attitude I may be harbouring now, which seems normal or fair, that I may subsequently be forced to concede is the opposite.

I would be more than willing to go on the pill or try any other form of contraception that so far has only been made available to women. But more than that, I will continue to think longer and harder when my attitudes are scrutinised or challenged around gender and sex. While I am certain I will not be able to concede every challenge, or resist reacting to every call-out, given the undeniable blind-spots I have just described, it’s clear that I’ve been very wrong before.

With the birth of my second child imminent, and my partner, who’s had a difficult pregnancy, about to go through giving birth again, it’s hardly a massive sacrifice that requires deep consideration. Rather, it would be a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, in recognising that whenever I can share a burden that’s traditionally fallen to women, I absolutely should.