This Week in Sex: Will Plants Bring Us the Next Big Birth Control Advance?

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Will Plants Bring Us the Next Big Birth Control Advance?

Martha Kempner

Lots to celebrate! Olives and mangoes might change our contraceptive methods; studies suggest that cycling doesn't hurt sexual health; and it's National Masturbation Month.

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

Will Plant Compounds Be Key to Next-Gen Birth Control?

University of California at Berkeley researchers recently tested dozens of chemicals to find substances that could essentially “turn off sperm,” and they believe they’ve found two that occur in nature.

The first substance, lupeol, is found in fruits like olives (yes, olives are fruit), mangoes, and grapes as well as plants such as aloe vera. The second, pristimerin, is found primarily in a plant known as the “thunder god vine,” which is commonly used in Chinese medicine.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.


Most birth control methods try to keep sperm and egg from getting anywhere near each other either by preventing ovulation so there is no egg (the primary function of hormonal methods); putting a physical barrier such as a condom between the two; or slowing down sperm on their all-important swim toward the egg (one of the ways an IUD works).

But lupeol and pristimerin work later in the game by essentially turning off sperms’ ability to “power-kick,” a special cork-screw motion that turns a sperm into a microscopic drill. Sperm can get to the egg, but they can’t make the drilling motion that penetrates the egg’s tough outer layer. So no fertilization.

The researchers believe that they can use these chemicals in contraceptive pills, patches, or rings that could be used by men or women. Because they work on sperm after ejaculation, these compounds might also be made into a different kind of emergency contraception.

Trials with primates—our closest animal relatives—are already under way, but one huge barrier to seeing this on pharmacy shelves is the cost. Lupeol and pristimerin can be found in lots of plants but at very low levels; extracting enough to produce a mass-market contraceptive would be prohibitively expensive.

The hope is that in the near future, scientists can create synthetic versions of these chemicals. The researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are optimistic that we could soon see new birth control methods using these natural substances.

In the meantime, please remember that eating more olives, munching on mangoes, or rubbing your skin with aloe will not do anything to prevent pregnancy. Anyone who doesn’t want to get pregnant needs to use one of the many methods that have already been proven effective.

Bike Seats Are Not Bad for Your Sexual Health

Whether they take to country roads or hit spin classes at the local gym, people who spend a lot of time on bike seats often feel pain in their groin or numbness from pressure on their perineum, the area between the anus and the scrotum or vulva.

Despite these common symptoms, research from the University of California at San Francisco suggests that cycling does not have a negative impact on men’s sexual or urological health, and that women aren’t affected much either.

Researchers surveyed 4,000 men from sports clubs around the world. Almost two-thirds of the men were cyclists who did not swim or run, and the rest were runners and swimmers who weren’t biking. They asked the men about their physical activity, sexual health, and prostate symptoms.

Though male bikers were more likely to report perineal numbness than other men regardless of what kind of bike seat they used, sexual dysfunction and urinary symptoms were no more common among them than among other athletes. In fact, men who cycled had overall better sexual health scores than runners and swimmers.

Women cyclists had a few more issues to contend with than the men. A survey of almost 2,700 women athletes found that these cyclists had more urinary tract infections than other athletes, and women who rode more than three times a week for two years were more likely to experience perineal numbness and sores on their buttocks. Still, like the men, women cyclists had better overall sexual health scores than their athletic peers, probably because the cardiac benefits of this exercise outweighed any sexual or urological risks.

May is Masturbation Month—Do It for a Good Cause

These days, there are so many different designations for each month that it’s hard to keep track. May is Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month, Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, to name a few.

All of these are important, but This Week in Sex doesn’t want you to miss the fact that May is also National Masturbation Month.

This year, you can participate and give to a good cause at the same time (well, kind of at the same time). The sex toy manufacturer Tenga, best known for its egg-shaped toys, is running a campaign called “Do It in May.” The campaign points out that masturbation is common, but open talk about it isn’t.

To shatter the stigma around solo sex, Tenga is asking web visitors to sign a pledge that they will masturbate a lot this month. For each pledge it gets, the company will give $1 (up to $10,000) to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), an organization that advocates for everyone’s right to information and education about sexuality and access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Masturbating for pleasure and charity seems like a win-win to us.

Update: No Paid Sex Breaks for Swedes

A couple of months ago, in our Global Edition, we told you about a Swedish politician who wanted to offer couples in his town an hour off in the middle of the day—paid—to have sex. He hoped that the break would not just spice up marriages but also increase the town’s birth rate.

Well, we have bad news for residents of Overtornea: If they want to have sex, they’re going to have to do it on their own time like the rest of us. The town council overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Its reasoning: If it gave time off for “sexual congress,” it would have to give time off for other personal activities such as gardening or house cleaning.

Of course, even without this benefit, those who work close enough to home can try a lunch-hour quickie.