This Week in Sex: Another Step Closer to Male Birth Control?

And elsewhere, the FDA warns men away from "Rhino" sexual enhancement products, and another reminder that children who find used condoms aren’t really at risk for contracting STIs.

[PHOTO: White woman and men brush noses in a prelude to a kiss. She holds an orange packet that holds one pill.]
Conventional wisdom suggests that men might not be willing to use contraceptives other than condoms or that they might balk at birth control side effects. Those perceptions, as well as regulatory and research hurdles, have slowed development of male-focused methods. Shutterstock

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Clinical Trial for Male Birth Control Method Now Recruiting Couples

Three sites around the country are now enrolling couples in the first clinical trial to fully test the safety and efficacy of a new male contraceptive gel. NES/T was developed by the Population Council and is being tested in collaboration with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Preliminary studies of NES/T have found that it is safe for men, causes few side effects, and successfully reduces sperm count. But in order to truly test its efficacy as contraception, researchers have to study it in male-female couples to see if it prevents pregnancy.

Male participants will use the gel (which is rubbed on the upper arm once each day) and have their sperm count monitored. Once the sperm count falls below 1 million per milliliter of ejaculate (a normal sperm count is about 20 million per milliliter), the couples will start relying on the gel as their method of birth control and will keep careful records of sex and pregnancy. Researchers say it could take eight to 16 weeks of NES/T use for sperm counts to drop to the safe range for use as a contraceptive.

One of the challenges of creating a hormonal birth control method for men is that the same hormones that are responsible for producing sperm are also responsible for secondary sex characteristics in men such as deep voices, beards, and body hair.

Dr. Régine Sitruk-Ware, distinguished scientist at the Population Council’s nonprofit Center for Biomedical Research and co-lead of the trial, explained to Rewire.News that this is why NES/T includes two hormones. Nestorone, a form of progesterone that the Population Council developed for use in female contraception, suppresses the hormones that produce sperm when used in men. But the gel also includes testosterone to give the body back some of what it has lost in the process.

Dr. Sitruk-Ware says that this combination seemed to work well for men in previous trials. There were some side effects, but most were mild (like weight gain and acne) and some were even welcomed (like increased libido). She said: “We are confident it will be really well tolerated, but of course having zero side effects is not realistic.” Sitruk-Ware is also confident that men will use this product when it becomes available, which has always been one of the biggest unknowns of the male birth control market.

“We have seen in our studies that the men were very willing and happy to use a noninvasive method and they found this very acceptable,” she told Rewire.News.

Of course, there is still a long way to go before it gets to market. This clinical trial will enroll 400 couples and follow them for a year. If it is successful, the gel will move to the next phase of trials, which will likely look at 1,000 couples also for a year.

Sitruk-Ware said that she understands why it seems like male birth control is always lurking just around the corner. Part of the problem, she explained, is that there is not an expedited “regulatory pathway” through the FDA approval process. She’s hoping NES/T blazes that trail so that future methods can come to fruition more quickly. In a statement, she said: “Safe, effective, and reversible tools for men to control their own fertility gives new meaning and significance to the term ‘family planning.’ No matter the challenge, we must continue to innovate and develop new products to improve lives.”

FDA Warns Men Away from Rhino Male Enhancement

This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put out a warning about a type of male enhancement commonly called “Rhino” after reports of chest pains, extreme headaches, sustained erections requiring surgical intervention, and hospitalization due to sudden drops in blood pressure. The agency also said that tests of the supplements found many brands contained undeclared ingredients similar to those found in prescription erectile dysfunction drugs.

The supplements—packaged with pictures of the mighty rhinoceros and names like Rhinomax, Krazzy Rhino, and Rhino Gold—are sold in convenience stores, gas stations, and, increasingly, by online retailers like Amazon and eBay. They promise to help users “get hard and stay hard.”

While the supplements purport to rely on herbal ingredients such deng sen extract, gogi berry extract, and cinnamon bark, the FDA has found that many of them actually contain sildenafil and/or tadalafil, the active ingredients in prescription erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra and Cialis. These ingredients, which are not declared on the packaging, raise the risk of adverse side effects (like that four-hour erection we all heard about in Viagra commercials) and can interact with prescription drugs for heart disease or diabetes.

The FDA has some good advice for anyone thinking of using sexual enhancement or any other dietary supplements: First, talk to your health care provider before taking any new supplement, as even natural ingredients can interact with medications you’re already taking. The agency also suggests using common sense because, as the old saying goes, claims that sound too good to be true probably are. The FDA recommends searching noncommercial sites for information       rather than depending on what vendors say.

We here at This Week in Sex would also argue that the majority of people do not need any sexual enhancements: You’re big enough, you’re hard enough, and you last long enough. If you don’t believe us, ask your partner(s). And, if together you think there is a problem that can’t be solved with more conversation or sexual experimentation, turning to your health-care provider or a licensed sex therapist is definitely better than relying on something you see for sale at 7-Eleven.

Kid Who Picked up Condom on Playground Is Not Really at Risk for Chlamydia

Earlier this month, a 4-year-old girl at a Milwaukee school found a used condom on the tot-lot playground and did what any 4-year-old would do: She mistook it for a balloon and tried to blow it up. The condom tested positive for chlamydia, the young girl was given antibiotics just in case, and her parents told the local news station how upset they were.

Every few years, there is a story like this one about a kid who picked up a used condom and put it in their mouth (because that’s what little kids do) and the parents who are outraged and scared of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We are just as grossed out by these stories as you are, but we want to remind our readers that as disgusting as used condoms are, they are not cause for panic.

You see, the bacteria and viruses that cause most STIs can’t survive long or thrive outside the body. Fred Wyand, director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association, told Rewire.News in an email: “Oral infections with chlamydia are very rare, and the bacteria on the condom was probably degraded significantly and unlikely to cause infection. While the ‘ick’ factor is high with this one, there’s no risk here.”

Used condoms appear to be a ubiquitous finding in public places like parks and playgrounds, but they’re not that big a deal.

We should certainly put out a plea to condom users to start using trash cans, sponsor park cleanups (where everyone wears gloves or gets one of those litter-stabbing sticks), and remind our kids repeatedly not to put anything they find on the ground into their mouths.

But we can save our worry about STIs for when these elementary school kids grow up and start having sex (hopefully with a condom that they then dispose of properly).