Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Footloose and Pharmaceutical-Free?

October 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill

At the West Coast Catalyst Convention for sex-positive sex-educators I was listening to a talk on definitions of sexual health when the birth control pill was brought up. I’d spent much of the event feeling desperately vanilla and so was pleased to be discussing something other than strap-ons and lube. The most popular forms of contraception – the hormonal kind – had been notably absent from all discussion that weekend.

Toys in Babeland window display, Photo by Joaquin Uy // CC 2.0

The speaker told the group that the pill is the leading cause of low libido and pelvic pain. She explained that studies had suggested the impact on libido could be permanent. The reaction of the audience was immediate and urgent – questions were fired out and it became clear that this information was news to most. A number of audience members seemed genuinely shocked. “What’s the science behind that?” one woman asked, but the speaker said she didn’t know.

Although the convention’s attendees had an intimidating level of knowledge when it came to sexual technique and sex toys, I discovered that once I mentioned I was there to develop a book and a documentary on hormonal contraceptives, many repeated the usual disinformation about birth control methods.

The speaker was right – the birth control pill is a leading cause of lowered sexual desire and pelvic pain. It’s also known to cause loss of lubrication, vaginitis, and vulvodynia. Other hormonal contraceptives such as the Depo Provera injection, implant, ring and Mirena IUD have been seen to have similar consequences. In fact, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the U.S.-based Centers for Vulvovaginal Disorders and one of the foremost vulvodynia experts in North America, blames an increase in complaints of this kind on third generation low-dose pills.

The study the speaker referred to was conducted by Dr. Claudia Panzer of Boston University and it did suggest some women may see a permanent effect on their testosterone levels, and so their level of desire. There have also been studies on these methods impact on frequency and intensity of orgasm, showing both to be decreased. Not to mention the 50% of women who will experience general negative mood effects that surely impact on their interest in sex. Many, many other studies have shown a clear negative effect on libido whilst using hormonal contraceptives. So many that it’s become something of a joke to roll eyes over the “irony” of prescribing a pill for pregnancy prevention that stops you wanting to have sex anyway.

At a convention dedicated to the celebration of sexual pleasure, I was surprised to see this information received with such confusion. A sex-positive attitude is becoming synonymous with “set it and forget it” long acting hormonal methods of contraception. But it struck me that sex-positive advocates should be the biggest fans of fertility awareness methods. Here’s why:

Ultrasound Man:Birth Control Superhero

May 17th, 2010 by Laura Wershler

superheroYou know how most superheros become superheros because of exposure to some weird, intensified chemical or element? Take Peter Parker’s spider bite for example.

According to a story reported in various media, including International Planned Parenthood Federation’s website, if science can perfect the contraceptive effect of ultasound on men’s testicles, then we may be in for a new breed of superhero.  Ultrasound Man: able to bear the burden of pregnancy prevention for women everywhere. 

I joke, but for decades women have yearned for gender equality when it comes to bearing the burden of birth control. Could the promise of six months of ultrasound induced, reversible infertility in men be the answer? Well, to date, we only know it works in rats. There is a long way to go before we send the men for a bi-annual ultrasound “zap test”.

This isn’t the first male method touted over the last decade. In 2003, news out of the UK about a birth control pill for men had women nodding their heads with approval. I was immediately dubious and dashed off a commentary for the Calgary Herald that began thus:

Memo to Big Pharma: Save your money. If you think the male birth control pill is going to be a big seller, think again. Memo to women everywhere: Curb your enthusiasm. If you think it’s time men took more responsibility, you’re right — but the Pill for Bill is not going to be it.

Because of the complex hormonal action of the pill for men, I knew it wouldn’t fly. As I noted in my piece:

According to a story from the London Telegraph, because the treatment is invasive, it is likely to be used only by men in long-term relationships. Read it and weep, gals, because this is the wicked truth. It’s OK for women of any age or relationship status to ingest birth control pills or receive the Depo-Provera injection that completely shuts down their reproductive systems, but men would never do the same. It is already postulated that only men in committed relationships are likely to submit to invasive hormonal contraception. That would be supportive husbands and partners of the best kind.

Although a recent  survey by the Family Planning Association found that one third of men would definitely use a birth control pill for men if it became available, I doubt very much, once the mechanism of action were explained (full disclosure), that there would be many takers. I suspect the side effects, and concerns about synthetic testosterone, would result in a pathetic compliance rate.

Certainly the ultrasound method sounds much less invasive. Research leader James Tsuruta of the University of North Carolina said: “We think this could provide men with reliable, low-cost, non-hormonal contraception from a single round of treatment.

Happily, “the team plans to investigate the mechanism that causes temporary infertility.” I think the guys would want to know how and why it works before signing up.  But they can rest assured because Dr. Tsuruta also said: “Establishing safety, efficacy and reversability: these are our top concerns.”

As media stories proliferate documenting the growing trend among young women to eschew the Pill (et. al) in favour of non-hormonal methods, news that there may be a safe, simple method for men on the horizon is both welcome and long overdue.

What I find hard to take, however, is this suggestion expressed by Allan Pacey from the University of Sheffield:

There is certainly a place for an effective non-hormonal contraceptive in men, but whether men would find it acceptable to have their testicles scanned regularly remains to be seen.

Find it acceptable? To have your testicles scanned regularly in a procedure described as “like sitting in a mini hot tub once every six months”?

I dare Mr. Pacey, a lecturer in andrology (the specialty that deals with men’s health) to say this in public to an audience of women who’ve been popping pills (et al) and inserting barrier contraceptives on both their and men’s behalf for the last several years. Ask these women if they find their current method of birth control acceptable. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 4 out of 10 women do NOT find their method of birth control satisfactory. But they take it or use it anyway, at least some of the time.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.