Masculinity, virility and infertility
The unspoken toll of toxic masculinity on men.
A quick Google search or skim through your Instagram feed would probably leave you with the sense that infertility is a female health issue, experienced – and talked about – by women. Masculinity and infertility often appear to be opposites, however, the statistics say otherwise. Infertility affects 1 in 4 couples globally, with fertility problems presenting most commonly as 1/3 female factor, 1/3 male factor and 1/3 unexplained. Which begs the question… where did the men go? In a medical issue that is split evenly between men and women, why would one ever believe infertility to be a women’s health issue?
When it comes to reproductive health, we’ve been set up for this by two things:
- historical narratives around male fertility and virility
- what we learn in school
This contributes to an inability (or unwillingness) on the part of men to admit to being anything less than perfectly “alpha”. Historical narratives support the idea of women being solely responsible for bearing children and alleviate the burden of fertility from the shoulders of men even today. Sadly for men, it’s a double-edged sword.
Henry VIII divorced two wives and chopped off two others’ heads for not birthing sons (there were other reasons but it was a factor) and the concept of the ‘barren’ woman still exists to this day – even if executing your wives is now considered distasteful. Much of historical authors' writing tells of a world in which male infertility is something close to science fiction, while the level of oppression experienced by women is determined by their fertility levels.
The narratives associated with toxic masculinity are still problematic for today's men. They rob men of the opportunity to explore and understand their fertility, an opportunity which can only come through talking about it. Currently, many men who talk openly about their fertility feel as though they risk being seen as weak or not masculine. When male infertility is not discussed, the burden of fertility falls on women, which is unfair.
Let's be clear: infertility is a human health issue. When we tie infertility to sex or gender – as historically we have – we do all humans a disservice.
So, how do we fix this?
Fixing this problem needs to start back in the classroom, during first those crucial sex education lessons. As teenagers, we need to be taught about fertility and pregnancy as something that affects all of us. Only by instilling that fertility is something which should be spoken about openly early on, can we remove the shame and awkwardness too often associated with these conversations. In turn, this will allow the next generation – particularly the next generation of men – to speak openly about their fertility and seek help when they need it, without having to battle feelings of shame or embarrassment.
What can each of us do today to help?
Talk. Talk to everyone around you, your father, brother, husband, wife, sister, mother and friends. The more we discuss fertility, the closer we get to a world where there is no stigma attached to the subject. You’ll likely find that once you bring it up in conversations, those around you will be keen to share their experiences with fertility, and you’ll plant the idea in their head that fertility can be spoken about without shame or awkwardness. Toxic masculinity silences men and overburdens women, so it is up to all of us to encourage these open conversations.