We Asked Men to Open Up About Infertility, and It Wasn’t Easy for Them

Men and women face infertility in almost equal measure, but how different are their reactions to it? Here’s what we discovered.
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Men and women face infertility in almost equal measure, but how different are their reactions to it? Here’s what we discovered.

Recently, we published an article for which we reached out to our friends, family, and Verily readers to share their reactions to what we thought was a pretty sobering reproductive health statistic: “One in eight women and one in ten men have experienced infertility, yet nearly half of them have not sought medical help.”

That means, in any given friend group or extended family unit, there’s likely at least one female and male experiencing fertility health issues. Perhaps that person is you; maybe it’s your husband or brother.

The study, recently published in Human Reproduction, one of the world’s leading reproductive medicine journals, looked at a sample of 15,000 women and men. It went on to say that the reasons people didn’t seek help included not understanding or acknowledging that a problem exists, fear of being labeled infertile, the costs and burden of treatment, or not wanting to get pregnant.

When we published the piece with women’s reactions, we immediately wondered what men would have to say. For men, the idea of virility is perhaps even more sensitive than for women.

What one man said to us speaks to a feeling many men seem to share: “I’ve heard plenty of stories about infertile couples, and if I’m honest, I guess I always assume the wife is the infertile one.”

Whereas women have a monthly cycle that provides tangible information about their fertility, men tend to mostly assume their systems are simple and always working. When that turns out not to be the case, the fallout can be shocking to a man’s psyche. But unlike women, they often feel they don’t have any cultural support.

As you might expect, we had a harder time getting men to open up about this topic. Nonetheless, here are some trends we saw among those who were candid with us.

They definitely feel some fear about it.

“The idea of being an infertile man is frightening because not only would it threaten that dream, but it would also strike at the heart of my masculine self-identity. It would be very tough for me to acknowledge being the problem, but I would hope I would, for the sake of my marriage.”

– Jason, 31

“I have no idea what a treatment for male infertility would even be, but I can see that it would be embarrassing to admit to and I’m sure expensive.”

– Joe, 29

“Fertility is not something I had thought much about at all, and probably would not have done at this stage of my life—having not settled down and with no immediate intention to start a family. However, this changed when certain unexplained health problems led a doctor to suggest that I may have testicular cancer. It turned out to be a false alarm, but for the couple of weeks when I thought that was the case, I was very upset (distraught, even) by the thought that I may never have children.”

– Henry, 28

“What’s interesting to me is the stigma associated with being infertile. This fear intrigues me, as it’s something I thought faded away as a result of medical breakthroughs (IUI, IVF, sperm/egg donations).”

– Charlie, 20

“These statistics are brand-new for me. We are all aware of the possibility, but I surmise that most would think the odds were lower.”

– Anthony, 25

Many are trying to be proactive for the health of their marriage or desire for marriage.

“As someone who has fertility issues, I recommend setting up an appointment with a urologist (someone who specializes in reproductive health) before you get married just to make sure everything is healthy. I knew about my varicocele [editor's note: when veins become enlarged inside the scrotum] going into marriage, but both of the regular doctors I went to said it wasn't a problem and neither mentioned the fact that it was even linked to infertility. That was really frustrating, as I could have taken care of it sooner if I was aware of its effects.”

– Gerald, 29

“It saddens me that people who struggle to get pregnant for such a long period of time are not seeking medical help. There are many healthy options medically available to people that could help them resolve their infertility. My fiancée and I plan to use NaPro technologies to help us prepare for having a family.”

– Andrew, 26

Some think it should be a larger part of the cultural conversation.

“The Susan G. Komen foundation reports the lifetime odds of breast cancer to be roughly the same (one in eight). Breast cancer awareness and prevention are hugely important. Perhaps it is high time that infertility awareness begins to follow suit. While it is not life-threatening, opportunities for early treatment could be key.”

– Anthony, 25

“We have been blessed with children but have seen family and friends struggle with infertility. It is beyond frustrating and has created real crises in their relationship. Most men's publications focus on the pathetic first person tales of bros who get vasectomies during March Madness. Somehow voluntary impotence is now peak manliness. Absurd and worthy of vicious satire.”

– Stephen, 30

“Reading this statistic makes me feel like I don’t think about it enough. I would be curious to know about more factors for men regarding fertility, i.e. how do certain lifestyle factors affect it (alcohol, smoking, exercise, etc). Should I freeze my sperm before I turn 35? Should I eat oysters for breakfast everyday? I would like to know more about the one in ten infertile men and what to watch out for.”

– Joe, 29

. . . And some don’t seem too fazed.

“I'm a father, so I'm not personally concerned about infertility. For a couple trying unsuccessfully to have children, I recognize that this must be a great source of pain, but on a population level, I don't find it worrying. As I see it, on a broader population level the problem is not rising infertility (I found the statistics about not seeking help confusing and potentially misleading; how can a couple who does not seek help truly be considered infertile if their reason for not seeking help is 'simply not wanting to get pregnant'?), but a widespread Western and Japanese collapse in the birth rate due to an individualistic zeitgeist and a lack of interest in having kids.”

– Edward, 29

“This is definitely a topic I haven’t considered prior to now and [the study] does not push me into learning more about my own fertile (or infertile) state. I doubt I will think seriously about my fertility until I am ready to have children, and if there is an issue, I will address it then.”

– Charlie, 20

“I think as time has gone on my thoughts have changed, and my likely response would now be different. I think I would now be resigned to that outcome, if I were told that I was infertile. [...] A far more terrifying thought for me, as I imagine would be the case for more men, would be erectile dysfunction. This need not mean infertility per se—but the perceived loss of manhood/manliness and virility that accompanies erectile dysfunction hits much closer to the core of many men's self-esteem than a potential loss of fertility.”

– Henry, 28

Do you know any men in your life who are dealing with infertility? How do you see men and women struggling differently with this issue? Let’s open up the conversation by sharing our stories in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Nirav Patel