The economics of the male pill

Might there soon be a pill for men?  Standard theories of tax incidence (borrowing from the Coase theorem) say that if so, it shouldn’t much affect the quantity of intercourse.  Either the gains from trade are there or they are not.  The initial burden of taking the pill might change the distribution of those gains across the sexes, but at the end of the night the final result should still be the same.

Only not!

If you are a man who can credibly signal he is taking such a pill, it is like paying the woman for that final result you so desired.  The woman no longer has to perform the costly pill-taking action herself.  And indeed the typical equilibrium is in fact that the man does the paying.  But with the male pill you are paying her in a way that will flatter her, not insult her.  Nice, eh?

The funny thing is, I don’t expect the male pill to be popular at all.  The key question is to figure out which assumption of the basic model is not satisfied.

One possibility is that women will infer that a man taking the pill is essentially paying other women for sex and she values him less highly.

Another possibility has to do with credibility combined with lags.  If it’s focal for the woman to be taking the pill, the woman is in any case taking her pill in advance.  The male pill would have impact, at the margin, only on women who weren’t really planning on having sex at all.  And what kind of man spends his energy targeting such women?  Yes, some men indeed do target such women, but then we’re back to the male pill not really being so popular.

A third possibility is that women in any case want the man to use a condom, if only to prevent STDs.  If the man is on the pill, it is harder to make that request without insulting him and thus a woman doesn’t want her new paramour to be on the male pill.

Addendum: Megan McArdle adds a fourth explanation.


I suspect the male pill will be an issue mostly in marriages and long-term committed relationships and won't have much effect on the casual hookup market. And the economics of sex in committed relationships are different.

If there are no health concerns, though, might not the male pill turn out to be popular among single males with multiple sex partners as an insurance policy against financially ruinous paternity suits?

...if it doesn't affect moods like the female pill does (and sex drive), I know of two families who will be using just that.

It'll be popular among celebrities and athletes at least ...

Re: #3, would women really believe men who say they're on the male pill? If you're the woman, would you take that chance?

Scenarios in the two-pill world:
A woman hoping for an entrapment marriage tells a man she's on the pill. But he's secretly on the other pill to avoid being entrapped. Lucky thing there are DNA tests to back him up later!

A nice sweet girl convinces herself she'll always remain a virgin, but one night in a fit of passion, she gives in -- it's safe, the man says, because he's taken the other pill. But it's only a line he's giving her.

The main problem with the male pill is sheer practicality. In women, one egg cell is released per month, according to a fairly precise set of hormonal events. So, dead easy to throw a spanner in the works of this system and stop the egg being released.

Men, by contrast don't have this precise hormonal sequence in sperm cell production; we just churn out sperm by the millions each day and every day. So, for the male pill to be effective, you've got to disrupt a far more robust mechanism and do so with better than 99.99% effectiveness or else a few sperm could get past the process and fertilize the woman.

This isn't easy; so far nobody's been able to do it, and frankly since doctors and biologists aren't fools and know a very hard challenge with few payoffs when they see one, not many have even attempted it.

Besides, what's the market going to be like for the pill, anyway? For couples who want sex but no kids, female pills are much more effective.

For the bloke out for a casual shag, the main problem isn't that of siring a bastard somewhere but the chance of picking up one of the myriad varieties of STDs that are about these days. With this in mind, exploring the range of modern condoms is a much better option, since these protect against disease as well as unwanted parentage.

A male pill is a good defense from paternity suits.

It might be easy to prove that the pill was prescribed to the man, but it could be pretty difficult to prove that the pills were consistently taken at the appropriate times. DNA tests would still be needed to disprove paternity.

I still think the male pill could be popular with men who seek more options for personal control over pregnancy. (I know I took the pill versus she says she did.)

Actually, Megan's "explanation" violates a fundamental (but glossed over) assumption in this scenario: "If you are a man who can credibly signal he is taking such a pill"

So "trust" can not be an issue, or the man is not credibly signaling.

Of course, the only way this scenario makes much sense is if this pill has visible side effects, such as turning the corneas of the man purple.

I think the quantity of sex will decrease because women's chances of trapping a man or securing 18 years of child support payments with an unwanted-by-him pregnancy will decrease, thus lowering the expected value of sex for many women.

Why would men be taking it in pill form anyways? Considering you just need a constant dose of the drug there are far better ways to do this besides taking a pill. I'd take it right now if I could. My wife and I don't want to have kids right now, and an extra layer of protection against that would be welcome. My friends would take it as well as protection against casual hook-ups (not necessarily one night stands) from turning into 18 years of child support.

In all reality I've seen the most vigorous objections to male birth control from women, because it takes a lot of power out of their hands.

A male pill is a good defense from paternity suits.

Back in my day, I would have taken this in a heartbeat, simply to avoid the downside risks of paternity, which are most certainly not limited to paternity suits. Whether I told my partners or not, and how they reacted, would be completely incidental to the intrinsic utility of it.

Market it (slyly) as child support insurance, and it'll fly off the shelves.

Yeah, I'm with Comment #3. How can a man credibly signal he is taking the pill? Taking pills are costly, and most of the costs of not taking the pill are incurred by the female. While I could imagine men and women in a marriage or cohabiting relationship doing this (because then the costs of monitoring are lower), I suspect for casual sexual encounters the signalling story is much weaker.

That condom commercial is great. I'm totally there.

As for STDs, presumably that can be handled the same way it's handled when women take the pill, IUD, sponges, vaginal rings, patches and/or diaphragms.

Jeffrey Deutsch,
You mean with a condom?

There are plenty of guys who would take this pill. Hell, I would now and probably would when I wasn't in a long term relationship. I, and many of my friends, am paranoid about getting "trapped" with a baby. Not to mention, this would act as a nice second form of BC (depending on the side effects), which would further reduce the odds of pregnancy. The pill isn't 100% effective, so combining two forms of BC makes it less likely. Not to mention marketing it to couples where the pill causes negative side effects to the woman (weight gain, modd swings, nausea, etc.).

Plus, as costly as the male pill would be, it would probably only cost a co-pay, as it would likely be covered by health insurance.

As for STDs, presumably that can be handled the same way it's handled when women take the pill, IUD, sponges, vaginal rings, patches and/or diaphragms.

Jeffrey Deutsch,
You mean with a condom?

Hello Mo,

No my point is that the STD-related problem (basically, how do you express the desire to use a condom with someone who's already covered in terms of birth control) would seem no worse with a male pill than with any of the many other non-condom birth control methods already in use.

You'll get no argument from me about the desirability of the male pill.

Jeff Deutsch

"thus lowering the expected value of sex for many women"

You seriously think that most women find getting court orders for child support from unwilling men a more rewarding activity than having orgasms? Those are some really strange women you know.

I do agree, thought, with the nameless commenter who says that the thing could be marketable as "sperm-count-reducing paternity-risk mitigation." Pregnancy may be more of risk than child support, because a woman's odds of getting pregnant are usually higher than a man's odds of actually being obliged to pay child support. But that doesn't mean paternity suits are a risk that's off the radar low, especially for men who have more money.

I don't see where it would greatly affect the quantity of casual intercourse, though, given that it's hard for casual partners (male or female) to trust each other to take pills, and that, in a world of limited trust, the pill would mainly affect the behavior of the sex that's already taking less risk and therefore on average more willing to have casual sex. Not that that's a problem. More power to prevent unwanted pregnancies is a good thing, in any form.

"You seriously think that most women find getting court orders for child support from unwilling men a more rewarding activity than having orgasms? Those are some really strange women you know."

Many women don't have orgasms, or enjoy sex much at all -- IIRC, various surveys have reported that around 10-30% of women never have orgasms and/or don't enjoy sex. Most of these women still want children and financial support to raise these children.

There are also many women who, regardless of whether they enjoy sex or not, want children but can't find a man willing to have children with them when the women want to start having them. Many of these women thus "forget" to take their birth control pills because they decide that they want a baby now whether their men want one or not. Or they think that getting pregnant will get an ambivalent man to marry or otherwise commit to them.

"Deadbeat dad" laws in the US have really been strengthened in recent years, so unless you work in the underground economy, you will eventually have to pay child support for any children you father (or, sometimes, for any children born to a woman you had a sexual relationship with, even if the children are not actually genetically yours!).

My warning to all my young male friends has been that the average woman's drive to have babies seems to be as strong as the average man's drive to have sex, and that women will lie to and otherwise manipulate men to get pregnant as much as men will lie to and manipulate women to get laid. Hopefully this has scared a few of them into always wearing condoms until they're ready to become fathers.

Unfortunately, though, as a contraceptive, condoms have a very high failure rate (10-18% with "typical use" -- very few people achieve the "perfect use" 2-3% failure rate), so I think the availability of a more reliable, male-controlled contraception option like a male birth control pill would be a great thing.

What are the potential side-effects, and how effective is the method? If the drug is safe, the side-effects are minor, and the effectiveness is very high, this is a big winner. But I highly doubt those are all the case.

"the average woman wants only a couple of babies in a lifetime, while the average man would be happy to have sex his whole life long"

What I mean is, a woman's drive to have a baby, when she wants one, is as strong as a man's drive to have sex when he wants sex. Men want to have sex more often than women want to have babies, but when a woman does want to have one, her drive to get pregnant is just as strong (possibly stronger!). I've definitely seen equal levels of unethical or self-destructive behavior from each gender in pursuit of their respective desires.

I agree with Jacqueline. I was one of those guys who was trapped by a woman, we ended up marrying. I love my daughter, things didn't work out between us, we are getting a divorce. I have temp custody of my daughter but still its rare for guys getting custody. The family courts are heavily biased towards women (b00b factor).

“ I also think that analyzing this in pure economic terms is laughable. People don't make such decisions in such a manner.† - Veronica

I don’t know what country or planet you come from, but here on the planet earth in the United States child support is not some trivial little one-time payment that can easily be ignored by the people (which are over 90% men) that have to pay it.

I work with young inner-city men that are barely making minimum-wage and paying out half of that to women that make a living having babies to qualify for food stamps, free housing and child support.

The need for this male contraceptive in my African American community where the out of wedlock birth rate is over 70% is paramount.

And your hypothetical scenario where the guy “trades off† using the only contraceptive that he can truly verify sounds like just another feminist recipe for disaster in a war zone that’s already been bombed.

All that being said I do agree with you that there are honest people in this world. But the use of an undetectable contraceptive (be it male or female) is a very personal issue that should not have to be negotiated or even disclosed unless the two people are actively trying to conceive a child.

My body my choice! Don't you remember that rally call.

"Exactly who in this thread, Larry, is suggesting that men be prevented from using the pill? I see a lot of people saying that it would be a great option for men to have, and no one saying women should get veto power over men using it."- Lynn Gazis-Sax

Nice try, but all this conciliatory talk on the eve of the release of the first undetectable male contraceptive makes me a little bit leery. And I’m just not buying it. And any man that does will most likely meet with his appropriate fate according to the latest U.S. census Bureau's out of wedlock births data statistics.

So never mind your golden stamp of approval ladies I think I’ll just stay alert and sober (just to be on the safe side) during this historical transition. And I’ll warn any and all other men (that will listen) to do the same. Because for all we know there could be a Trojan horse awaiting us at the gate to the promise land of reproductive equality.

The bottom line here is,

"Sexual partner beware! Because there are no exchanges or refunds when it comes to the very valuable commodity of sperm. So never trust any female that says she’s using anything that you can not see with your own eyes. Unless you want her to be the mother of your next child."

That’s what I tell the young dudes that are (court ordered) to come to our community center because they missed two or more child support payments and the judge doesn’t want to throw them in jail- yet.

And it’s also what I tell the ten to fourteen year old boys I coach in summer league. And it’s the best advice I can offer to the men on the net.

In closing let me say I do apologize if I've said anything inappropriate or offensive on a personal level. But I'm on the front lines of this biased anti-male child support system. And I've just seen to many broken men with shattered dreams.

i think it wont work

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