Dr. Chuen-yan Cheng, senior scientist at the New York headquarters of the Population Council, and inventor of a drug that could spark the next, long-awaited phase of the sexual revolution—or, conversely, an age of mass male panic attacks—sat in his tiny lab overlooking the East River, beaming like a new dad.
“You can say I’m obsessed; I think about it all the time,” he said of his new discovery, laughing.
The 52-year-old Dr. Cheng has good reason to be feeling exuberant these days. After nearly 30 years in the lab, plugging away for 12 hours a day, six days a week, he recently added a big notch to his researcher’s belt. Using an experimental drug called Adjudin, he proved that it was possible to halt sperm production temporarily in male rats, to stop the little swimmers from maturing.
In the process, he brought the world that much closer to an invention that many ladies have dreamed of for decades: a male contraceptive.
“This way, the man can still have sex with the woman and still can ejaculate, it’s just that the ejaculate has no sperm,” said Dr. Cheng, explaining how his discovery, if realized, would work (the results of his study were published in the prestigious Nature Medicine journal). “But you don’t need sperm, because that is not part of the joy in there, so that men should not get upset and the women should not get upset.”
Or so the hypothesis goes. The reality, some guy-watchers and sex-philosopher types suggest, could be a hairier proposition, a kind of litmus test for modern-day man-lady relations. Spin the bottle in one direction, and the man contraceptive could be embraced by men (in committed, monogamous relationships, of course!) as a chance to step up to the pregnancy-prevention plate, to do their part, at last; spin it another way, and it could be the next ready-made excuse for guys to get out of condom duty. In the one instance, it could become part of the new normal in contraception; in the other, men could prove that they’re just not up to the task, as the salty sex-advice columnist, Dan Savage, suggested.
“I think that a lot of men are too wrapped up in their virility and their seed and its awesome power to destroy someone else’s life, and for that reason I don’t think a lot of men will use a male contraceptive,” he said. “I wish they would. But after sleeping with men for 25 years, and getting their letters for the last 15, mostly from straight guys, I have no illusions.”
The advent of a man contraceptive has been, in many ways, like the Godot of reproductive medicine—forever coming, never actually arriving. While the lady pill was all but rushed to market in the early 1960’s (side effects be damned), the male version has long been stalled somewhere between the theoretical and the nascent, gaining, gaining, gaining momentum every few decades, only to peter out shortly after.
The complexity and prodigiousness of the sperm-producing process is at least partly to blame for the long delay: Each day, men’s testes churn out a microscopic torrent of about 150 million sperm—only one of which needs to escape to do its baby-making deed—and scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how it all happens. Then there has been the whole funding problem—and when it comes to male contraceptives, anything resembling a side effect has always been a deal-breaker.
“There was a terrible double standard, which was that as soon as they found out there was any serious side effect, the drug companies gave up on developing the product, because they said, ‘Men aren’t going to put up with it,’” said veteran women’s-health expert Barbara Seaman. “Especially if they can’t get it up—if the side effect has anything to do with their masculinity, that’s the end of it.”
But now, more than 45 years after the first generation of tiny, super-estrogen-charged pills helped spawn an age of free love for ladies, the dream of the next sex-revolutionary step—the one where the guys shoulder the major weight of the hanky-panky burden—is finally coming into focus. It’s emerging in the age of AIDS, of course, which limits (or should limit) its revolutionary scope to committed, monogamous couples, but slowly the man contraceptive is taking shape: in the form of a RISUG (Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance), a reversible, injectable compound which is in phase-three clinical trials in India; in several hormone-based gels and injectables, which are in trials in the U.S and Europe; and then in Dr. Cheng’s lab, where he is in the early stages of turning Adjudin into a sperm-stopping patch or injection.
Most scientists tend to agree that all of these drugs are still in posse, at least a few years from hitting the market. But whether it’s Adjudin or a RISUG or some other scientist’s sperm-buster that goes live first, it will probably happen. And when it does, the question will be: Are men ready? Will they be able to handle the responsibility? Or will the ontological threat to their precious bodily fluids turn them into a raving crowd of Strangelovian nut-jobs?
“I think dudes will freak out,” said Mr. Savage. “Men are a little obsessed with their spunk … and they’re obsessed with it because it’s the show.
“From the minute a guy first masturbates,” he said, “he’s looking at his cum going, ‘Wow, this is like that magic potion that makes babies.’ So for guys to tamper with that magic ingredient—it’s going to be a big psychological leap to make.”
Mr. Savage is a representative of what might be called the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” school of male-contraceptive theory (though he is also careful to point out that he doesn’t endorse the theory himself). It’s a school that one might have thought would have closed its creaky mahogany doors years ago, gone the way of so many Masonic lodges, but judging from its membership roster, both long and illustrious, it is still swinging, even in these urbane parts.
“I personally advise abstinence,” said the novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe, “but lacking that, I do not think men will go for [the male contraceptive], because they will look upon on it as—I’m not getting Freudian here—but they will look upon it as a form of castration. Men, even those who do not approach sex with the slightest thought of offspring, like to feel potent.”
As for those self-declared man-feminist types, the ones who would gladly sacrifice some sperm for the sake of shared responsibility, Mr. Wolfe predicted: “There will be exactly as many who do that as do dishes.”
Mr. Wolfe, however, might be only half-right on that front. The Observer found quite a few men who were willing to share the burden of contraception, to go halfsies on the whole family-planning thing: for example, two young college grads sipping beer in the Third Avenue soccer bar, Nevada Smiths, who embraced the man contraceptive as a “great idea” and “a lot better than getting the snip-snip”; or Alexander Sanger, grandson of birth-control warrior Margaret Sanger, who noted that he is “kind of beyond the reproductive age at the moment,” but also threw in his theoretical support.
Still, for a decent chunk of the more enlightened types, gender sensitivity often went hand in hand with a scientific skepticism, or perhaps a pharmaceutical wariness—so that while they said they’d be willing to sport condoms, pull out or whatever, they wouldn’t guinea-pig their bodies out to modern science.
Novelist Jonathan Ames, for instance, confessed (after being asked, admittedly) that he’d be willing to sit each day in a tub of hot water to do his part in the contraception game—hot baths being one natural (if old-school) way of lowering a man’s sperm count. “I like baths,” he said. But “messing with your body” by means of a pill, patch or any other artificial means would be out of the question.
“I’m kind of a free-range, fair-trade disposition in matters of sexuality and the environment,” said the 42-year old Mr. Ames. “But I’m democratic—I wouldn’t want women to take a pill, either.
“I’m pro-condom,” he added.
(Condoms were quite popular with a certain category of single man, who worried that a male contraceptive could do some serious damage to S.T.D. prevention.)
Meanwhile, international gadabout Fabian Basabe wouldn’t cop to how far he’d go to lift some of the reproductive burden from his missus, but he did say that “sharing the responsibility is always a positive thing,” and he was all for it. “The [man contraceptive] is definitely something that’s important,” he said. “But I personally would never consider taking it, because I’m very chemical-free. I don’t even take Advil.”
This, however, did not stop Mr. Basabe from suggesting that a man contraceptive be dispensed to the needy people of developing nations as a means of population control. Or to some of his “eternal-bachelor” friends who aren’t ready to settle down but don’t want to get snared, Steve Bing–style, in a paternity suit. “There are a lot of cases out there of people claiming that someone fathered their child, and it might not be the case,” he said.
Nor was Mr. Basabe the only one to hint at that old soap-opera narrative of the wily, baby-plotting female and her unsuspecting man. Oddly enough, quite a few interviewees hailed the man contraceptive as a potential antidote to unwanted fatherhood, a kind of child-support Epi-Pen.
All of which suggests something of a built-in irony about the long-sought contraceptive for men. While women (or at least some women) have looked forward to it as a kind of tit-for-tat turning of the reproductive tables, a certain breed of guy will take it—or say they’re taking it—for all the brute, mannish reasons they have always done things: as a way to sidestep daddy duties or avoid the whole raincoat-in-the-shower phenomenon.
“I think that our readers would be pretty excited about it, just based on the fact that it would allow them to have alternatives,” said Jimmy Jellinek, editor in chief of Maxim magazine. And then, cutting to the chase, he added: “Because you don’t have to use a condom. I think it has less to do with the fact of ‘Oh, I want to share the burden’ than ‘I want to take this thing off that’s strangling me.’ Bring back the swinging 70’s with the [contraceptive] patch!”
Mr. Jellinek’s use of the word “patch” was important—a subtle bit of manufacturing advice for the man-contraceptive makers. While some researchers have been working hard to get their drugs into pill form, Mr. Jellinek was adamant that a pill would be terrible, disastrous, because men could never manage the awesome responsibility of taking a daily medication. Give them a bimonthly injection or implant a patch under their skin, he suggested—but don’t give them a pill they’ll have to pop each morning, because they’ll only “forget or do it wrong.”
The Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave, a sultry-voiced former sex-advice columnist for Cosmopolitan, agreed, dismissing the whole male-reliability question with an aristocratic “You could never trust a man with that, just knowing how completely irresponsible they are.”
In fact, if there was one common, unifying reaction to the idea of the man contraceptive, it was that in 2006, the Year of the Dog, men still can’t be trusted to take responsibility for what goes on in their gonads. They’re simply too spacey, too immature, too slimy—which is to say, too prone to trying to pull a fast one on their lady-friends, sweet-talking them into a night of condomless love on the false promise that they’re on the man-patch, because they’re not the ones who will get stuck with the baby.
“I think that women take responsibility for [birth control] because it’s a big event in a woman’s life, and it’s something that she can’t forget,” said the novelist and feminist Erica Jong. “But if you’re looking for something that could be given to a population that’s irresponsible, it’s not going to be male contraception.”
All of which may be true, but which sounds so deterministic, so depressing. If, in fact, men can’t take reproductive responsibility, perhaps it’s because the ladies in their lives haven’t raised enough of a ruckus. Or perhaps women—and scientists—just haven’t gotten creative enough yet.
Take Dr. Cheng. His successful first-round Adjudin trial suggests that he’s made a promising start. But as he plots his next big step—how to translate his research from rats to humans—perhaps he should focus less on how to convert the compound into pill form than on, say, how to doctor it with a hint of Viagra.
That would be a contraceptive that even a lout couldn’t resist.