Why Is There No Sperm-Killing Birth Control Pill?

Greg Laden at Science Blogs tests the theory that men only want to spread their seed, and questions why it is that there's no male birth control pill.

I mean, other than the potentially obvious reason that scientists haven't yet figured out how to safely and easily kill sperm while maintaining a man's potential to continue creating it. Laden says it's about control.

Evolutionary Psychologists often take the circumstance of nearly zero male investment as the starting point for theorizing about human sexual strategies and social organization. "Males are selected to inseminate as many females as possible," is a stock phrase.

Well, it is a starting point, but only in the way that a nice red rock and some mineral oil is the starting point for an expensive tube of lipstick. The male as gladiator and sperm donor (and little else) might be the most common trope among mammals, but it is also true that a lot of mammalian species exhibit male parental care to varying degrees, and humans are this sort of mammal. More paternal care, longer periods of investment, and the greater reproductive value of each individual offspring means there will be more serious risk to males making bad investment choices.

Laden is suggesting that human males, like some other mammals, have evolved not to spread their seed and be kept from parenting, but to parent their offspring — i.e., that parenting is not a function of society but of biology.

He explains that, in most mammals, it's actually the women who biologically have reproductive control.

When I say that female mammals are in [direct] control of reproduction, I mean this in reference to every part of the process. In most mammal species, females choose with whom to have sex to a much greater degree than any male aardvark or high school student would like to admit. Females choose whether or not the egg will be inseminated. Females choose to allow the egg to be implanted. Females choose whether or not a fetus will grow or be aborted. Females choose how much to nurse their offspring. Here, I take liberties with the word "choose." We could be talking about a physiological response to maternal condition that biases the likelihood of fertilization by an X- vs Y- toting sperm (in elk), or a conversation among friends that supports a decision to go out on a second date with a particular suitor (in humans).

With the men out of reproductive control and yet still biologically designed to parent, Laden suggests that human males then design social systems to exert control.

In 'monogamous' mammal species, this may be in the form of total exclusion of all other reproductive males from a territory, and constant attendance to the female. In social mammals, a male's indirect control of the reproductive process may be much more varied to meet the circumstances.

Human males can rape. They can coerce. They can arrange for the marriage between their kin and the kin of an ally. Male judges can order the sterilization of individual females or a whole class of females, and male generals and privates can carry out a little genocide here, a little rape and murder there. Males can pass laws that limit a woman's access to day-to-day birth control methods, to abortion, and to possession of property (resources). These are the ways that males can determine, at several different levels, the outcome of female reproductive activities.

He's in fact suggesting that male insecurity about their lack of biological control of women's bodies leads directly to them imposing social controls over women.

He points out that the female birth control pill, to a degree, has upended some of those social controls by strengthening a woman's ability to maintain biological control of reproduction.

The female birth control pill is an excellent way of controlling reproduction, but it has some costs, which are all borne by the female. It allows females to be sexually receptive with less risk for making bad decisions, which is beneficial to the strategy of both the male and female. But it interferes with only the female's physiology and it has health risks only for the female. The male remains fecund. The male can still philander, but he cannot be a cuckold.

A man, he's saying, can spread his seed — which he's often socially encouraged to do due to tropes about how he's so biologically determined to do so — without worrying about raising some other man's child. Thus female birth control, even as it allows women more control biologically, helps maintain the social situation under which a man exerts more control over reproduction than is biologically determined by a woman's direct control.

Laden suggests, then, that male birth control will actually be the thing which undermines the social structures men have built to supposedly even the playing field with regards to direct control of reproduction. It will allow men to assume certainly biological risks that currently only women can assume; it will give men the same biological control of their reproductive processes as women, reducing their (one might call it existential) insecurity and the need to impose social structures on women to control their reproduction.

Is it a stretch? Probably. But it's nice to see an evolutionary argument that doesn't start from the position that women want one sperm donor and men wish to donate to many women. It's also nice to think that maybe the burden of not reproducing might be shared with the men who also don't wish to do so.

Why Is There No Birth Control Pill For Men? [Science Blogs]