Thursday, 5 September 2013

Porn is no substitute for good sex education - LOUISE MCCUDDEN

Accessed 5th September 2013

Porn is no substitute for good sex education

Girls are learning their sexuality is something they perform for
others, instead of something they own
A study by the NSPCC has found that porn is negatively impacting young people – especially girls.
The study found that nearly a third of pupils (aged 11-18) surveyed said porn “dictates how people should behave in a relationship,” and 32 per cent said it “affects how they act” with their partner.  But the most troublesome finding is summarised by the NSPCC’s Claire Lilley, who warns porn is teaching “boys that girls are for sexual gratification, whilst girls feel they have to look and perform like ‘porn stars’ to be liked and valued by boys.”  
As people react to the study, the focus, as usual, ends up being on porn itself (“Can porn be feminist?” “Why are we so squeamish about porn?” “I like pornand I’m a good person!”), but the porn debate isn’t the point. The point, according to this study, is that because of whatever porn they are watching, too many girls are learning sex is about impressing boys – as opposed to, say, having a good orgasm. Girls are learning their sexuality is something they perform for others, instead of something they own. They are learning that sex is about being an object, not an agent.
Feminists get asked about objectification a lot. Or to put it more accurately, we get a lot of sneering assertions that objectification doesn’t exist, usually in the same breath as unashamed ignorance about what the word actually means.
Porn isn’t new but young people having this level of access to it is, and the line between porn and other media has become so blurred it isn’t always clear to adults, let alone kids, which is which. Porn and the pornified entertainment industry are taking the place of informed sex and relationship education.
The NSPCC survey found young people are three times more likely to seek out their sexual education online than to ask questions of their teachers, parents, or carers. How curious that the people who call us prudes or sex-haters for questioning whether a sex education that consists of face-spunking and songs about bubble butts really gives the healthiest understanding of sexual consent are so often the same people to reach for the smelling salts when we suggest the radical idea that parents make sure they discuss sex properly with their own kids. 
Of course, not all parents will, which is why all this needs to be part of the school curriculum, too. And by “all this” I mean SRE that includes not just saying yes and saying no, but also hearing and accepting both yes and no, without judgment. SRE that includes enthusiastic consent, pleasure, and the importance of the clitoris. Again, there may or may not be porn like that. But that’s not what young people are watching, and it’s not the message they’re taking from what they do watch.
This survey by NSPCC – a children’s charity, by the way, with no particular axe to grind against porn in general - shows that young people are learning objectification. Objectification isn’t about sex or nudity. The difference between being an object and an agent is the difference between Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video and the Ask First (Consent is Sexy) riposte.  Objectification isn’t actually a tough concept. You know what an object is. Perhaps you are one of these people who thinks it’s about wanting women to be chaste or cover up? That inability to distinguish between a culture that nearly always shows women posing for you to look at, and a culture that embraces women expressing our own sexualities perfectly exemplifies the mess we’re in.
Before you leap into the “porn debate” to talk about how the only alternative to mainstream, repeated conflation of sex with objectification is covering women from head to toe and calling us sluts, remember that the NSPCC didn’t find girls are becoming more sexually liberated, or enjoying more sexual pleasure. They didn’t find that girls are no longer shamed as “sluts” because porn broadens everyone’s minds.
They found that girls “feel they have to look and act like porn stars”, for the pleasure of boys. In fact, if anything, the consumers of porn, lads’ mags and strip clubs are often the worst offenders for calling women “sluts” and “whores”. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t –after all, “slut” is just the other side of the same sexist coin that calls women “frigid” or “prude”. And if young people pick up the message that there’s an automatic correlation between consuming porn and taking a progressive attitude to sex, if young people get the impression that sexism and objectification are an essential, normal part of sex, that’s not surprising either. They’re getting those ideas directly from us. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The truth about pornography: It's time for a rude awakening - ARCHIE BLAND

Accessed 4th September 2013


The truth about pornography: It's time for a rude awakening

Not everyone who is interested in sexual images wants to see violence. But, since that's now the norm, how can we shame ourselves out of this?

This is a piece about how pornography is like a plastic bag. It is also a piece about the fact that I watch pornography. The first of these statements may seem surprising. The second absolutely should not.
More precisely: to make the second statement may be relatively unusual. But if I gave you my particulars – 29 years old, male, with a reliable internet connection and a working knowledge, gleaned as a teenager, of my browser's "delete history" facility – you could have guessed the underlying detail with a high degree of confidence. I suppose it's possible that I'm an outlier, exposing myself as a total creep by saying this, but I don't think so.
We know that men watching pornography at least occasionally is an absolute given among my peers, who are, I like to think, at the relatively well-adjusted end of the spectrum. In the course of writing this piece I've checked with at least 10 of them, and they all agreed that the same could be said about their friends outside of my own circle. (Sorry, guys.) A Twitter and Facebook trawl of about 45,000 people also turned up a vanishingly small number of men – six – who never watched porn. The tone of several exchanges I had on the subject made it clear that those few conceived of their habits as being in sharp opposition to the mainstream.
These are frustratingly unscientific methods of assessment, partly enforced by the relative paucity of data on the subject, itself the consequence of our embarrassment. Still, there are some pointers available. On Friday, a traffic analysis found that British people click on porn sites more than they do on social networks. A 2008 study found that 86 per cent of young adult men watch porn, 69 per cent at least once a month. And when, a year later, the University of Montreal tried to conduct a study into the views of men who never watched porn, it failed to find a single candidate.
The truth is, even the necessity of doing this sort of groundwork feels a little ridiculous. It seems to me uncontroversial to say, as an absolute minimum, that it is not unusual for men to watch porn. If you were feeling just a little bolder you could surmise that, in fact, a significant majority of men watch porn; that quite a lot of women do, too; and that, among young adults, exposure is nearly universal.
Now the Government is trying to catch up. Last week, David Cameron announced that the major internet service providers had agreed to the introduction of "default-on" porn filters. The months-long debate leading up to that step has felt like a significant moment in the collective understanding of how profoundly our relationship with pornography has changed since high-speed internet became the norm. Apparently, a lot of people who grew up having no option but grot mags at the newsagent have had a nasty shock. They are only now discovering, mostly second-hand or by searching for "sex video internet" on Google, just how accessible, varied and repugnant this stuff can be.
And yet, many speeches and gallons of ink later, we don't seem to have got very much further than the principles that children shouldn't see pornography, and no one should see images of child abuse. We can't even agree on whose responsibility it is to enforce these axioms, on whether it's technically possible, or on whether The Sun should be subjected to the same rules as YouPorn. We certainly haven't managed a mature conversation about what sort of moral framework we want to apply to pornography. To me, the explanation for this seems obvious. Everyone is willing to say: pornography is everywhere. Almost no one is willing to say: and I have seen some of it.
So, um, yes. I have seen some of it. I don't say so with any sense of pride. Also, in the interests of preserving at least a wisp of dignity, I should like to add that it's not, y'know, a hobby. Even so, I guess I know more about it than most of the wide-eyed ingénues who have formed such strong opinions about its impact of late. This is why it seems worth mentioning. In most areas of controversy, the views of the ignorant are at least occasionally balanced by plaintive corrections from the better-informed; in this one, the ignorant, or pseudo-ignorant, have the field almost unopposed. With a very few exceptions (such as the New Statesman's Laurie Penny), no one says, well, you haven't got that quite right, because to do so reveals greater familiarity than we are generally willing to admit.
That squeamishness about detail isn't merely a matter of sociological interest. It has real consequences. It means that the argument about pornography becomes binary: on or off, consensual or exploitative, arousing or repellent. And then, because most of us are instinctively opposed to censorship, we sigh that it's a fact of life, and we just have to put up with all of it. Consider Cameron's speech last week, which featured, among the easy (and, it turned out, ill-considered) applause lines about child protection, only one moment of engagement with the granular detail of porn, in his vow that depictions of rape would be banned – as if there were anything bold or controversial about the idea that videos which normalise so reprehensible a crime should be beyond the pale.
Because he is a politician, and has therefore never seen any pornography ever at all ever, that's about as far as Cameron can go. Probably that's for the best: the really important debates about pornography should not be about legal principles, but ethical ones. Here's where my – oh, God, there's no other word for it – expertise comes in. I can tell you, for example, that if you're interested in watching two people having sex (and see no moral problem in that interest) but not so interested in watching women being treated badly, your options are pretty limited. I can tell you that it is quite common to have 18-year-old girls dressed up in school uniform and filmed in a classroom. I can tell you that condoms are rarely sighted, and that performers in the US – who will simply not get work if they insist on them being used – have contracted serious illnesses as a result.
There is lots more of this detail, but it only gets more specific, and you probably don't want to read about it over your breakfast. Still, it's enormously important. A few years ago, I interviewed The Sun's agony aunt Deidre Sanders, who told me that the biggest change in the make-up of her postbag since she took up the role in 1980 was the precipitous growth in letters from men and women whose relationships had been affected by pornography. I feel pretty confident that I have always been able to keep fantasy and reality distinct, but there will certainly be some people for whom that is not true, and, even if these default-on porn filters delay children's exposure a little, there will certainly be more of them in future. One study found that 90 per cent of content on the most popular porn sites featured physical or verbal abuse against women, and you don't have to be Mary Whitehouse to find that concerning. We need to do something about it, and since we are not going to outlaw pornography altogether, we need to figure out what that might be.
Here's one suggestion. In my own consumption of porn, I have always tried to avoid those tropes that I find unsettling. But in the writing of this piece, I have realised that I am not careful enough. I avoid the misogynist video, but I may be careless about avoiding the site that hosts it; I feel bad about the unprotected sex, but I don't bother going to the great lengths it would require to find the alternative. I am really ashamed about this, and I'm going to take a great deal more care in future. The source of my shame, straightforwardly enough, is not some new-found moral clarity, but the fact that you are now reading this, and so my behaviour has been exposed. For me, at least, the use of pornography has become a semi-public fact.
In isolation, this doesn't mean very much, except that everyone I know is going to laugh at me for a while. More widely, it might mean quite a lot. What if we ditched the stigma carried by pornography in general, and instead attached it, loudly, to the pornography that we consider to be unacceptable? We have seen this principle applied in so many other areas. People are, basically, too lazy to make ethical choices. The only way to get us to do so is to incentivise us with a little bit of shame.
Think of battery farms, of sweat-shop clothes, of – yes – the fight against plastic bags. Pornography is not immune from the behavioural economics that shifted all those battles. If enough people said they sometimes watched porn, and also said that they hated the misogyny that accompanies it, some entrepreneurial spirit would surely intervene. And if there was a porn site that promised me I could surf it without any risk of coming across anything I needed to worry about (there are some out there, but none has reached critical mass), I would visit it exclusively, with enormous gratitude to its creators for taking the effort out of doing the right thing.
It is, I suppose, a call for a wanker's code: a contention that being interested in sex is not the same thing as being interested in violent misogyny, and an appeal for a proper conversation about splitting the one off from the other. Because, yes, we are wankers. But that doesn't mean we have to be shitheads.

The man who made Femen: New film outs Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the protest group and its breast-baring stunts - GEOFFREY MACNAB

Accessed 4th September 2013

The man who made Femen: New film outs Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the protest group and its breast-baring stunts 

It’s the Ukranian feminist group that embarrassed President Putin. Its activists have staged many protests against sexual and political repression by stripping to their waists in carefully choreographed media stunts.
“Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts,” runs their slogan. Now, a new documentary screening at the Venice Film Festival has revealed that Femen was founded and is controlled by a man.
Ukraine is not a Brothel, directed by 28-year-old Australian film-maker Kitty Green, has “outed” Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the group. Mr Syvatski is known as a “consultant” to the movement. According to the Femen website, he was badly beaten up by the secret services in Ukraine earlier this summer because of his activities on behalf of the group.
However, Ms Green reveals that Svyatski is not simply a supporter of Femen but its founder and éminence grise. “It’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page... that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand,” she says.
Today, several of the original members of Femen – among them its best known campaigner Inna Shevchenko – are due in Venice for the launch of Ms Green’s documentary. In recent days some of its original members have moved abroad to escape persecution in their home country, claiming that they have been “systematically harassed, severely beaten, kidnapped, and repeatedly received threats” from the authorities, while in June two French and one German member were jailed following a topless protest in Tunisia.
Until now, the full extent of Mr Svyatski’s influence over Femen has not been realised. The film claims it was he who sent Femen activists on one of their most terrifying missions to Belarus where (according to testimony in the film) they were arrested by secret service agents, stripped, humiliated and abandoned in a forest close to the Ukranian border.
Ms Green accompanied them on this trip. She told The Independent that her footage was stolen by the KGB and that she was abducted, “kept in confinement for about eight hours,” and then deported to Lithuania.
In the documentary, Ms Green pays tribute to Mr Svyatski’s organisational abilities and charisma but questions his influence over the group.
“He can be really horrible but he is fiercely intelligent,” she said of Mr Svyatski, who is interviewed on camera in her film. Ms Green spent a year living in a tiny apartment in Kiev with four of the Femen members and filming their stunts. “I would shoot their protests and they would take them and put them on their website,” she said.
Only gradually did she become aware that Mr Svyatski was pulling the strings behind the scenes. “Once I was in the inner circle, you can’t not know him. He is Femen.”
 Initially, Mr Svyatski refused to allow Ms Green to film him but she was determined that he should feature. “It was a big moral thing for me because I realised how this organisation was run. He was quite horrible with the girls. He would scream at them and call them bitches.”
When the Femen founder finally spoke to Ms Green, he sought to justify his role within the organisation and  acknowledged the paradox of being a “patriarch” running a feminist protest group. “These girls are weak,” he says in the film.
“They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”
Mr Svyatski insists to Ms Green that his influence on the group is positive. However, when he is asked directly whether he started Femen “to get girls”, he replies: “Perhaps yes, somewhere in my deep subconscious.”
One of the Femen campaigners talks of the relationship between the women and the movement’s founder as being akin to “Stockholm syndrome”, in which hostages feel sympathy for their captors.
“We are psychologically dependent on him and even if we know and understand that we could do this by ourselves without his help, it’s psychological dependence,” she says.

Yaz, Yasmin birth control pills suspected in 23 deaths - CBC News

Accessed 4th September 2013

Yaz, Yasmin birth control pills suspected in 23 deaths

Most died from blood clots, Health Canada documents obtained by CBC News show

CBC News 

Posted: Jun 11, 2013 5:51 AM PT Last Updated: Jun 11, 2013 7:45 AM PT 

At least 23 Canadian women who were taking two of the most commonly prescribed birth control pills in the world have died, CBC News has learned.
According to documents obtained from Health Canada, doctors and pharmacists say Yaz and Yasmin are suspected in the deaths of the women, who mostly died suddenly from blood clots.
One of the women, 18-year-old Miranda Scott, was working out on an elliptical machine at the Okanagan gym at the University of British Columbia when she collapsed and died three years ago, said her mother, Chip McClaughry, who is involved in a class-action lawsuit against Bayer, the maker of the birth-control pills.
'When she was on the ground she said, "I can't breathe," and then, you know, she was gone.'—Chip McClaughry, Miranda Scott's mother
"She fell backwards into the person behind her and then, I guess, when she was on the ground she said, 'I can't breathe,' and then, you know, she was gone," McClaughry said at her home in Delta, B.C.
McClaughry had no idea what had happened to her athletic, healthy young daughter, but she started to investigate.
"As soon as I heard that she had been on Yasmin, I thought, 'I'm just going to look that up,' and I did, and I thought: 'Oh my God, this is what's killed her," she said.

Risk of blood clots rises

According to Scott's autopsy, she died of "disseminated intravascular coagulation," which means that blood clots formed inside blood vessels throughout her body.
Matthew Baer, of the Siskinds law firm, represents hundreds of Ontario women in a certified class-action lawsuit against Bayer that alleges Yaz and Yasmin have an increased risk of serious side-effects, including blood clots.
report concluded she had died after blood clots formed throughout her body, a complication sometimes reported with birth control hormones. (CBC)
"[Scott's] autopsy report did say that there was a pulmonary embolism, which again is a blood clot in the lung," he said. "The major side-effect that we're alleging is worse with Yasmin than with the other oral contraceptives, [which] is an increase of blood clots."
Certification of the class action is not a finding of fault against Bayer.
While Bayer has already paid more than $1 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits in the U.S., the drug company tells CBC News it stands by its products.
Both Yaz and Yasmin, which are sometimes called "newer-generation" birth control pills, includes a synthetic progestin, drospirenone, which is exclusive to Bayer.

Teen girls as young as 14

In 2011, Health Canada issued a warning about Yaz and Yasmin, saying the risk of blood clots, which is rare overall, is 1.5 to 3 times higher with the drospirenone-containing pills than with some other birth control pills.
While one in 10,000 women on older birth control pills will develop blood clots, as many as three in 10,000 will develop blood clots on Yaz or Yasmin.
According to the documents obtained from Health Canada, between 2007 and February 2013, doctors and pharmacists have reported 600 adverse reactions and 23 deaths where Yaz or Yasmin were suspected. More than half of the reported deaths were women under 26, with the youngest age 14.
Most of the deaths reported occurred soon after starting the pills. In Scott's case, it was just over a month.
"And that was all it took, five weeks start to finish, and that was the end of a beautiful, beautiful girl," her mother said.

Lawyer says deaths underreported

Tony Merchant, a lawyer representing 1,000 women outside Ontario — including Scott — is seeking to certify a second class-action lawsuit in Canada against Bayer this fall.
'There are about thirty or forty deaths that we think are known, but that is usually just the tip of the iceberg.'—Tony Merchant, class action lawyer
Merchant said the number of deaths potentially associated with Yasmin or Yaz may be largely underreported because doctors may not realize there is a link between the cause of death and the risks of the pills.
"There are about 30 or 40 deaths that we think are known, but that is usually just the tip of the iceberg because all sorts of people will have died.... [Their families] don't know anything about the litigation, they don't know anything about the problem," he said.
Merchant said hundreds of patients who have approached his firm have had gallbladders removed, or have had strokes or blood clots and now must take blood thinners for the rest of their lives.
None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Bayer stands by Yasmin, Yaz

In a written statement to CBC News, Bayer said it is fighting the certification of the first Canadian class-action suit, the one in Ontario, which alleges women died or were injured by Yaz and Yasmin:
"We are very disappointed in Justice Crane's decision to certify a class in Ontario in an ongoing lawsuit regarding Yaz and Yasmin. No decision has been made on the merits of the case. We have filed a request with the Court for leave to appeal the decision and are evaluating our legal options... At Bayer patient safety comes first and we fully stand behind, Yaz and Yasmin."
Bayer is scheduled to appear in court in Ontario on Sept. 4.

Vasily Petrenko, says women distract orchestras. A mezzo-soprano disagrees. By Sarah Connolly

Accessed 4th September 2013

Flustered by our sexual energy? Just keep your eyes on the score

Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, says women distract orchestras. A mezzo-soprano disagrees.

We should be celebrating that on Saturday night, Marin Alsop will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the Last Night of the Proms, the first time in the event’s 118-year history that a woman will have held the baton on this prestigious occasion.
Instead, women – and men – throughout the classical music world are talking about female conductors for quite a different reason. Like me, they will be shaking their heads with disbelief and embarrassment following the statements made in an interview last week by Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
For it has emerged that Petrenko believes women are far too distracting to stand on the podium. We’re too “cute” to be conductors, creating too much “sexual energy” among the male members of the pit. We are Delilahs to the Samsons in the strings, Salome in her seven veils dancing before the Herods in the brass.
Good grief! In Petrenko’s opinion, it seems every performance is like Carry on Conducting, with Sid James, dressed in black tie, ignoring his snare drums to gawp at Barbara Windsor giggling over her baton. It is pathetic.
Having stood in front of orchestras as a mezzo-soprano for 20 years, I can honestly say I have never felt judged like that. No musician, male or female, would want to be evaluated for their looks. We are, as we expect, judged on the sound we produce.
How appalling that any woman performer who perfects her art with hours of daily practice should find the critical judgment of her colleagues reduced to what she looks like on the night.
When I sing, it is to the very best of my ability; I engage with the orchestra; I perform. I simply can’t imagine any of the male performers hoping I get booked because of my looks.
The most attention my appearance ever attracted was at the Last Night of the Proms four years ago, when I led the Rule, Britannia! finale dressed in an admiral’s uniform. Wearing trousers on stage is not unusual for me – I wore them in a competition when I was younger and, when told I ought to have worn a skirt, I replied: “Whatever for?” In the end, nobody cared. My voice, my music, was enough.
So I can’t believe that sexist comments such as Petrenko’s are still in circulation today. Particularly irritating is his remark that: “When women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the [classical music] business.” As a mother, I know that my career has not been impeded or my commitment lessened at all; why should it? The decision to have children is up to the woman and her partner. No one else has any right to discuss it.
Yet Petrenko’s remarks are not useless. They highlight the lack of women conductors. While most orchestras are now 50:50, there are still not enough women on the podium. It takes a lot of confidence, personality and charisma to conduct, and more than just determination. You have to earn the respect of an orchestra and its members. Technique can be learnt, but few also have the ability truly to draw out the poetry from the score.
And women do make great conductors. Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, Jane Glover, artistic director of opera at the Royal Academy of Music, and Sian Edwards, former music director of English National Opera, all work hard at being role models for younger women interested in taking up the baton. I know they would be horrified by Petrenko’s remarks. But his words were insulting not just to women. What is he saying about the men in the orchestra? Does he really think experienced musicians are going to lose focus during an intense performance of Mahler, say, just because the conductor is “cute”?
Perhaps Petrenko is simply out of step with the world. He told the Norwegian paper Aftenposten of his comments: “If this had come up in Great Britain, I don’t think people would have reacted in the same way.” If he thinks we are all sniggering like Sid James, he needs to learn more about British culture. And thank goodness he didn’t make these remarks in New York. He would probably have been sued.
He will certainly have a lot of explaining to do next time he stands on the podium in front of a pit full of cuties.

The Revolutionary New Birth Control Method for Men - Bill Gifford

Accessed 4th September 2013

The Revolutionary New Birth Control Method for Men

By Bill Gifford
April 26, 2011 | 
12:00 pm | 
The promising procedure, developed by scientist Sujoy Guha, is in late Phase III clinical trials in India, which means approval in that country could come in as little as two years.
Photo: Anay Mann
One Saturday in January 2010, Devendra Deshpande left his home in the Delhi suburbs and drove into the city to get a vasectomy. He was 36 years old, married with two young kids, and he thought it was time.
He arrived at the hospital around midday and met Hem Das, then the hospital’s chief vasectomy surgeon. Das had an interesting question for Deshpande. Rather than receive a traditional vasectomy, would Deshpande like to be part of a clinical trial for a new contraceptive procedure?
Das explained that the new method did not have some of the drawbacks associated with a regular vasectomy. First, sperm would still be able to escape Deshpande’s body normally, which meant he would be free of the pressure and granulomas that sometimes accompany a vasectomy. More important, it could be reversed easily, with a simple follow-up injection.
“I am normally not adventurous when it comes to getting myself operated on,” Deshpande deadpans. But the new method sounded good to him, and according to the published studies he read on his smartphone in the waiting room, it seemed safe. He gave his wife, Vinu, a call, and although she sounded nervous on the phone, she said she was fine with it. Deshpande decided to try the experimental method.
When his turn came, he lay down on the table, and an orderly draped his lower body with a green surgical cloth that covered everything but his scrotum. Then Das moved in with a needle containing a local anesthetic. Once the drug had taken effect, Das gathered a fold of skin, made a puncture, and reached into the scrotum with a fine pair of forceps. He extracted a white tube: the vas deferens, which sperm travel through from the testes to the penis. In a normal vasectomy, Das would have severed the vas, cauterized and tied up the ends, and tucked it all back inside. But rather than snipping, Das took another syringe, delicately slid the needle lengthwise into the vas, and slowly depressed the plunger, injecting a clear, viscous liquid. He then repeated the steps on the other side of the scrotum.
The procedure is known by the clunky acronym RISUG (for reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), but it is in fact quite elegant: The substance that Das injected was a nontoxic polymer that forms a coating on the inside of the vas. As sperm flow past, they are chemically incapacitated, rendering them unable to fertilize an egg.
If the research pans out, RISUG would represent the biggest advance in male birth control since a clever Polish entrepreneur dipped a phallic mold into liquid rubber and invented the modern condom. “It holds tremendous promise,” says Ronald Weiss, a leading Canadian vasectomy surgeon and a member of a World Health Organization team that visited India to look into RISUG. “If we can prove that RISUG is safe and effective and reversible, there is no reason why anybody would have a vasectomy.”
But here’s the thing: RISUG is not the product of some global pharmaceutical company or state-of-the-art government-funded research lab. It’s the brainchild of a maverick Indian scientist named Sujoy Guha, who has spent more than 30 years refining the idea while battling bureaucrats in his own country and skeptics worldwide. He has prevailed because, in study after study, RISUG has been proven to work 100 percent of the time. Among the hundreds of men who have been successfully injected with the compound so far in clinical trials, there has not been a single failure or serious adverse reaction. The procedure is now in late Phase III clinical trials in India, which means approval in that country could come in as little as two years.
But RISUG is garnering interest beyond India. Every week, Guha’s inbox fills with entreaties from Western men. They’ve heard about RISUG on Internet forums or from occasional mentions in newspaper and magazine articles. Some of them even volunteer to travel to India, offering themselves as lab rats. Guha puts them off gently but politely; for now, the trials are open only to Indian men. Everyone else has to wait. “Our options suck,” fumes one frustrated correspondent, a Florida real estate manager who emailed Guha a few years ago. “I’d gladly put my balls on the chopping block for the benefit of mankind.”
He may yet have that opportunity. Thanks to a novel collaboration between Guha and a San Francisco reproductive health activist, RISUG could soon be on the road to FDA approval in the US.
In both the East and the West, the need for better contraceptives couldn’t be clearer. India will soon surpass China as the world’s most populous nation; in the poorest Indian state, women bear an average of nearly four children. Cheap to produce and relatively easy to administer, RISUG could help poor couples limit their families—increasing their chances of escaping poverty. In the developed countries, it would help relieve women of the risks of long-term birth-control-pill use and give men a more reliable, less annoying option than condoms. About half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned. Come up with a better contraceptive and the likely results are all good: fewer unwanted kids, fewer single parents, and fewer abortions.
Marooned in the marshes of West Bengal, 20 hours by rail from New Delhi, the small city of Kharagpur is a likelier spot for a prison than for one of the world’s most elite technological institutions. In fact, under the British, it was the site of the notorious Hijli detention camp, where rebel intellectuals were imprisoned. After India’s independence in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru pointedly established the first Indian Institute of Technology on the site; today, a steady stream of recruiters from Microsoft, Sun, and Facebook make pilgrimages to the campus in search of the brightest Indian talent.
Guha was a member of IIT’s fifth entering class, in 1957—attending school where his uncle, a radical writer, had been imprisoned years earlier. After Guha reached retirement age in 2002, he returned to Kharagpur from Delhi. Driving around campus today in his 1967 Fiat sedan, Guha points out buildings that he has reclaimed from the jungle and retrofit with labs and workshops—a kind of rogue operation within the university walls. A former mining department building now serves as a RISUG production facility, where his staff mixes up batches of the polymer used in the procedure.
Besides RISUG, Guha is also developing an artificial heart based not on a human heart but on that of a cockroach, which has 13 chambers. His artificial version has five chambers in its left ventricle, which allows it to step up pressure more gradually, inflicting less stress on the mechanism and materials than a conventional design. In another building on campus, he is raising goats that will eventually receive the experimental hearts.
A birdlike man with clear, olive-toned skin and an elegant manner, Guha seems to have been transported from another century. In a sense, he was: Born in 1940, before independence, he still uses Britishisms like see here and good man. He doesn’t waste oxygen on small talk, so when he does speak you know to listen. Nevertheless, he has a lively sense of humor, and when something amuses him he’ll burst into a delighted, high-pitched laugh. At age 70, he still does not need glasses, which he attributes to his daily eye exercises. Every night, he jogs 2 miles around the IIT campus carrying a rolled-up belt to ward off stray dogs. “Every part of the body must be exercised,” he says.
Guha has a penchant for simple yet profound inventions. As a young graduate student at St. Louis University during the mid-1960s, he devised an electromagnetic pump that had no moving parts; instead, it used the ionic charge of seawater to create force. As he explained to a visiting reporter from Popular Science, his pump could also serve as a silent engine for ships—or nuclear submarines. A version of that electromagnetic “caterpillar drive” is, of course, at the center of the film The Hunt for Red October. As has happened with medical discoveries from penicillin to Viagra, Guha was searching for something entirely different when he stumbled across the idea that became RISUG. In the early 1970s, at the behest of the government, Guha was looking for a way to purify water in rural pumps. Treating the water chemically could be too expensive and infrastructure-dependent; he needed a method that was permanent, safe, and cheap. Then a hotshot young professor at the IIT campus in Delhi, Guha figured out a way to line the pumps with a substance that would kill bacteria without depleting itself.
But the project was never completed. In the mid-1970s, India awoke to its urgent population crisis, and the government’s priorities changed. Guha refocused his work on the field of contraception. He soon realized that the same basic concept could work inside the pumping mechanism of the male anatomy—the vas deferens.
In 1979, when Guha was 39, he published a simple four-page paper that outlined the basic concept of RISUG. He had begun experimenting with a common polymer, called styrene maleic anhydride. The SMA was mixed with a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, and injected into the vas deferens of 25 male rats. Each male was placed in a cage with three breeding females. After six months, none of the female rats had become pregnant. (In the control groups, all of the females became pregnant.) Guha and his team also showed that the substance could be flushed out with a simple injection of DMSO. Normal fertility soon returned.
They refined the method and tried it successfully in monkeys, whose reproductive physiology is close to that of humans. As a high-molecular-weight polymer, the mixture was not absorbed by the body, nor was it flushed out by the flow of seminal fluid. It anchored to the inner wall of the vas, and in laboratory tests it appeared to be nontoxic. Plus, it seemed to retain its effectiveness indefinitely, like a magnet. In 1989, it was injected into a human subject for the first time. It worked.


A reversible vasectomy begins like a regular vasectomy: The surgeon makes a small puncture in the scrotum and extracts the vas deferens, a slender white tube. But rather than severing the vas, the doctor injects the vessel lengthwise with a nontoxic, stable polymer mixture. The process is repeated on the other side.
The polymer, a compound of styrene maleic anhydride (or SMA, an ingredient in floor polish) and dimethyl sulfoxide (or DMSO, a common solvent) anchors itself to the tiny folds in the vas, clinging to the tissue. Sperm and other fluids can still get through, avoiding the backup pressure sometimes associated with a vasectomy.
As sperm pass through the vas, the positively charged polymer interacts with the negatively charged sperm, rupturing cell membranes and damaging sperm tails. The sperm are thus incapable of fertilizing an egg. Sperm production and male hormone levels are not affected. 
—Bill Gifford

Illustrations: Teagan White

Ever since the birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, scientists in the West have been looking for a male equivalent. It’s been a rocky road, in part for biological reasons: Hormonally, it’s much easier to control a single monthly event like ovulation than to try to stop the endless onslaught of sperm.
An equivalent “pill” for men would somehow have to stop sperm production without neutralizing their libido or erectile function. Pharmaceutical companies and government agencies have sunk millions into hormone-based contraceptive research that has yielded few viable products.
And then there’s RISUG. Rather than shutting down sperm production, with the potential side effects that entails, it acts more like a tollbooth on the sperm superhighway. As the negatively charged sperm pass by, they are essentially zapped by the positive charge of the SMA polymer. So a RISUG-injected man will still ejaculate millions of sperm, but most will be dead: tails snapped off, cell membranes ruptured.
As a contraceptive, RISUG faces a far more difficult road to approval and commercial acceptance than, say, a new antidepressant medication. While an antidepressant would be considered a success if it worked in 75 percent of patients, a contraceptive like RISUG will be compared to a conventional vasectomy, which works more than 99 percent of the time. Furthermore, it has to be free from the serious side effects that were common with early experimental hormone-based male contraceptives. And it cannot cause birth defects down the line—ever. “Nobody wants another thalidomide,” says Ron Weiss, the Canadian vasectomy doctor.
In human tests, RISUG performed extremely well. In the first clinical trial of 17 men, published in 1993, all the subjects who received above a certain dosage became azoospermic—that is, they produced no viable sperm. By 2000, it was in Phase III clinical trials in India, the final stage before approval. The compound was injected into 139 men, and the early results looked promising. In May 2002, it was announced that RISUG was on track for approval in India and would be rolled out on a limited basis within six months.
At around the same time, a World Health Organization team came to visit Guha’s lab in Delhi and examine his data. This itself was a triumph: It meant RISUG was finally on the international radar. Weiss, a long-time advocate of the process, was with the group and performed the operation. But the five-person team came away skeptical.
In its report, the WHO team agreed that the concept of RISUG was intriguing. But they found fault with the homegrown production methods: Guha and his staff made the concoction themselves in his lab, and the WHO delegation found his facilities wanting by modern pharmaceutical manufacturing standards. Furthermore, they found that Guha’s studies did not meet “international regulatory requirements” for new drug approval—certain data was missing. The final recommendation: WHO should pass on RISUG.
But within India, at least, RISUG still seemed to be headed for approval. Then, in mid-2002, after Guha and his team had spent years cultivating allies in India’s infamous bureaucracy, a new health minister took over, and the Indian Council for Medical Research (equivalent to the US National Institutes of Health) put the brakes on the trials. Before new patients could be injected, the NIH asked that some of the subjects be analyzed further and that basic toxicology studies be redone.
Of particular concern was the possibility that SMA—a resin found in floor polishes and automobile body panels—is toxic. Styrene and maleic anhydride are indeed toxic separately. But Guha points out that while sodium and chlorine are also toxic individually, “we take sodium chloride all the time.”
The analogy holds for RISUG: Lab tests show that SMA is nontoxic. Guha had convinced the Indian government of the compound’s safety back in the ’80s; now he had to do it all over again, and he was exasperated. Mysterious press reports appeared, stating that some patients had experienced “complications”—which turned out to be nothing more than transient scrotal swelling. In the press, Guha suggested that his doubters had deliberately slowed RISUG to make way for competing hormonal injections developed by foreign companies. True or not, it didn’t make him any friends.
“It was not a problem of science,” says A. R. Nanda, an early supporter of RISUG and former secretary of the department of family welfare. “It was a problem of politics and ego.”
In the middle of it all, Guha reached mandatory retirement age, leading him to leave his post at IIT Delhi, close to the levers of power. He retreated to Kharagpur, in the jungle. But instead of giving up, he dug in, remembering what an old mentor had told him early in his career: that any new scientific idea had to experience four stages of reaction, which correspond to the name of the Hindu god Rama.
“In the first instance, there will be rejection—R,” Guha says, sitting in a folding chair in his fluorescent-lit lab. “If you pursue it, there will be anger. You have to persist. Then, a phase of mellowing will come: ‘Ah, yes,’ people will say. ‘Maybe there’s something to it!’ Then, if you still have patience and courage, will come a stage of acceptance.”
From his home base in Ottawa, Ronald Weiss marvels at the possibilities of RISUG. “If you’re looking for the better mousetrap, this is it,” he says. “I have received emails from men all over the world kind of champing at the bit to get RISUG.”
Weiss had been trying to bring the process to Canada starting in the late ’90s. But when he presented his notes and Guha’s published studies to the regulators at Health Canada, they shot him down. Guha’s studies did not meet their standards, they said. All of them would need to be redone. “Essentially, we were in a situation where we would have to start from zero,” Weiss says. “We would have to redo every single study to get approval. And I didn’t have millions of dollars at my disposal.”
He looked around for a corporate partner but found no takers. Unlike birth control pills, which must be used daily, sometimes for years, RISUG is a long-lasting, low-cost treatment (the syringe could end up costing more than the material it injects). “Pharmaceutical companies are not interested in one-offs,” Weiss says. “They’re interested in things they can sell repeatedly, like the birth control pill or Viagra.”
Reluctantly, Weiss gave up on his plans to commercialize the procedure in North America. But a woman named Elaine Lissner picked up where he left off. Lissner’s interest in male contraception started in the late 1980s, when she was an undergraduate at Stanford. She took a seminar there from Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the female birth control pill, who once famously declared that no woman then alive would see a male contraceptive in use during her reproductive lifetime.
Lissner found herself asking the same question that millions of men and women have asked: Why not? Why should there be plenty of options for women and none for men? In college, she’d seen the reproductive havoc wreaked on her friends by a world that places most of the contraceptive burden on women. She wrote a paper outlining what was being done about nonhormonal methods of male contraception, which could be summed up in two words: not much. There were actually, she discovered, men who soaked their testicles in scalding hot water, thinking (correctly but painfully) that it would reduce their fertility. There had to be a better answer.
She founded a small nonprofit advocacy group called the Male Contraception Information Project to push for better male options. By 2001, she had concluded that RISUG was the most promising new development out there and began tracking its ups and downs closely.
By 2009, though, she had grown frustrated with the lack of progress on RISUG in India. Luckily, she was in a position to do something about it. At the beginning of the real estate boom, she’d invested a small amount of money in her father’s construction company, which had become wildly successful building houses around Reno, Nevada. She parked the profits in a small private foundation called Parsemus and set about putting money behind RISUG.
In February 2010, Parsemus bought the international rights to the RISUG technology from Guha and IIT Kharagpur for $100,000. They had worked closely together for years, and she had earned his trust. She also hired Gary Gamerman, a consultant who specializes in shepherding products through the complex FDA approval process. The plan was to get RISUG OK’d in the US, perhaps even before it hit the market in India. “What’s the alternative?” Lissner asks. “Just keep complaining?”
Gamerman told her what she already knew: She would have to begin at the beginning—by making a batch of SMA/DMSO compound in a certified pharmaceutical plant in the US. Later this year, Lissner and her team will begin basic toxicology testing, and if the material passes muster—as it always has in the past—then they will test it in rabbits, hoping to repeat Guha’s results on rats from 1979. Oh, and it won’t be called RISUG anymore. One of Lissner’s first acts was to name the compound Vasalgel. But to get human clinical trials going will take more funding than the $500,000 that Lissner has budgeted; Gamerman estimates that the whole approval process could cost $4 million to $5 million. “There should be tons of interested potential partners,” she says, reeling off a list that includes Planned Parenthood, USAID, organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (which have invested in population control and women’s health), and a group called WomanCare Global, run by a former pharmaceutical exec.
“If it’s no longer a crazy Indian idea and it’s something that’s working in India and in rabbits in Ohio and in the first 20 men in the US,” Lissner says, “then there’s got to be a point where there’s just no excuse for a Gates or a Buffett not to get on board.”
Just this past year, in fact, Guha received a $100,000 Gates Foundation grant to pursue a variation of RISUG in the fallopian tubes as a female contraceptive. More important, the Gates grant marked an important milestone for Guha, an international validation of his work. It’s been a long time coming—and an important step toward the final stage of Rama: acceptance.
Meanwhile, after a repeat of some of the basic toxicology tests (and another shift in the political wind), Phase III trials have resumed in India with full government support. Five hundred subjects are expected to be enrolled at 10 study centers around the country. One of those patients was Devendra Deshpande, the man who read about the safety of RISUG on his cell phone before undergoing the procedure.
A software engineer for an American company, Deshpande is slim and sharp-featured, dressed in the global nerd uniform of neat burgundy sweater and faded jeans. He and his wife, Vinu, a broad, cheerful woman, are part of the burgeoning new Indian middle class. They live in Noida, a Delhi suburb, in a complex of new two-story town houses. They have a car and a tidy, comfortable home that resounds with the cries of two energetic young children, a boy and a girl.
An hour after the procedure started, Deshpande was on his way home. He had two band-aids on his shaved scrotum, plus a handful of painkillers and a course of ciprofloxacin—Indian doctors do not mess around when it comes to prescribing strong antibiotics. He used the pain pills for a couple of days and felt some tenderness and swelling for a week but no other side effects. There was no recurring scrotal pain, as sometimes happens with a vasectomy; on most days, he forgot that the stuff was in there.
Which, if you think about it, is the goal of any contraceptive (not to mention the theme of endless Trojan condom advertisements): You forget about it. No one had to take a pill every day. Nobody had to have bloating or other side effects. No “accidents.”
And regarding what Indians euphemistically term “the family life,” he says, there was one big plus: He didn’t have to continue using condoms for three months, as is recommended after standard vasectomies.
“It was business as usual,” Deshpande says. Vinu giggles. “Probably better!”
Bill Gifford ( writes frequently for Men’s Journal and Ou