TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Male contraception

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Male contraception - Philip Larkin was nearly right when he wrote that 'Sexual intercourse began in 1963 ... between the end of the 'Chatterley' ban and the Beatles' first LP'. Britain's sexual revolution really started in '61 with the launch of the first contraceptive pill - although the strains of Please Please Me may have helped create the right mood.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Philip Larkin was nearly right when he wrote that 'Sexual intercourse began in 1963 ... between the end of the 'Chatterley' ban and the Beatles' first LP'. Britain's sexual revolution really started in '61 with the launch of the first contraceptive pill - although the strains of Please Please Me may have helped create the right mood.

Containing two female hormones (oestrogen and progestin), the Pill gave women a reliable way to control their fertility and promised the end of shotgun weddings and of Larkin's 'wrangle for the ring'.

Since then, female contraception has become big business. A hundred million women worldwide are on the Pill, despite concerns over the long-term health effects of some of the 32 varieties. And there's the coil, the diaphragm, even the femidom - a female condom whose tendency to rustle punctured hopes for its success. But there's been nothing new for men - until now.

Thanks to the efforts of researchers at the University of Oxford and to a joint trial between drug giants Akzo-Nobel and Schering, there could be two new types of male Pill on the market within five years.

THE CHALLENGE: Men looking for consequence-free sex have had a simple choice: either imitate Old Testament adulterer Onan and spill your seed upon the ground, or use a condom. Named after a 17th-century French doctor, the oldest known British condoms - made of fishskin - were unearthed in the grounds of Dudley Castle and date from the Civil War. Modern chaps prefer their rubbers to be made of, well, rubber, but condoms remain popular, not least because they also protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

THE SOLUTION Scientists say a key reason the male Pill has been so long in coming is that it's much easier to put the kybosh on a woman's one-egg-per-month cycle than it is to take out the tens of millions of sperm contained in every male ejaculation. But the new pills in development (to be taken daily) manage to do just that. The Akzo-Nobel/Schering pill uses a synthetic female hormone (desogestrel), which stops the production of sperm, combined with a dose of testosterone to maintain normal levels of the male hormone.

The Oxford pill uses a drug called N-butyldeoxynojirimycin (NB-DNJ) to deform sperm rather than stop their production. These wonky sperm are incapable of fertilising an egg. Advantages of this approach include better reversibility and fewer side-effects, and because NB-DNJ is already licensed for the treatment of genetic disorders, it too could be on the market in only a few years.

All of which should provide relief to the female half of many long-term couples. But for the single woman, a burning question remains: Do you trust him to take it?

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