Every morning until she was menopaused, my mother used to pop a contraceptive pill alongside her cup of tea and a couple of toasts. It was a ritual that she started at age 21 and that she only stopped a few times in order to get pregnant with my brother and me.
My mother’s contraception habit is an ordinary example of how couples in long-term monogamous heterosexual relationship avoid pregnancy. During a conversation I had with her a couple of months ago, she mentioned that, although my parents knew they did not want more children, there was never any mention of my father getting a vasectomy (a much easier procedure than tubal ligation) — my mother was the one responsible for them not getting pregnant again.
According to Science Progress, in 2009 “women alone contracept 67.3 percent of the time. If we include shared methods [withdrawal and the rhythm method], as well as male condom use, […] women are involved in almost 91 percent of all contraceptive use.”
There are several explanations for these numbers.
Women generally carry the burden of the contraception because they are the ones physically experiencing the pregnancy, therefore, it is (wrongly) believed to be solely their responsibility. Consequently, according to Science Progress women are the ones who have to endure invasive medical examinations, suffer the side-effects of the contraception chosen, deal with the expense of obtaining the contraceptive, and face the consequences of contraception failure.
Men also often dislike, or even reject, the contraception methods available to them (condoms, withdrawal, and vasectomy) for fear of damaging their masculinity. Misinformation about lack of sexual performance, ejaculation, and pleasure often scare them away from sharing the burden of contraception. In the case of withdrawal, effectiveness also presents legitimate concerns that would prevent the use of this method.
While sexism and gender stereotypes are certainly significant factors to explain the disparity between the numbers of women and men who contracept, availability of contraception should also be taken into account.
Although women have fifteen different contraception methods at their disposal, men only have three. Moreover, while women have two long-term reversible contraceptives (the IUD and the birth control implant), men have none.
Being responsible for contraception in a relationship is certainly a burden, but it also provides an autonomy that men have no access to; the lack of options they face forces them to rely on their partner. In case of failure of contraception, there also is little they can do about the consequences.
Unfortunately, whether it is a hormonal pill, a non-hormonal pill, the “dick-click”, or vasalgel, no male contraceptive are anywhere close to be on the market, both for scientific and (disputable) economic reasons.
Better male contraception does not mean depriving women of control over their own bodies, it means providing more options for couples to share the responsibility of contraception and pregnancy, bringing forth more gender equality.