Recognizing that you are dealing with male factor infertility brings up a host of challenging feelings and ideas for a couple trying to have a baby. Masculinity itself gets called into question. But shame, stigma, and a bunch of other unhelpful responses can be lessened if we can reframe this issue.
Infertility &The Emasculation Factor
There is a huge emasculation factor that can arise in response to discovering that your body is getting in the way of you and your partner’s dream of having a baby. Women, of course, feel this as well, but it there is a different stigma for men due to how we’ve come to be socialized to understand our role and expected abilities.
Why does infertility so viscerally strike at our sense of manhood and masculinity?
Male Factor Infertility & Shame
Shame is one of the first ugly feelings that pop up when a guy is told about his infertility. But why shame? Why does infertility so viscerally strike at our sense of manhood and masculinity?
There are certain expectations that we grow up with and that, as men, we are not expected to question. You can laugh at most ‘phallic’ jokes, but they are such a common trope because (at the risk of sounding crude) too much of our identity as men is socialized to be one big phallic joke: be big, be strong, follow through, get to the bottom of things, keep others happy, show no weakness, let others know who’s boss.
In fact, impotence means both the inability for a man to sustain an erection as well as sterility. Two different issues with the same, highly stigmatized word (with the underlying feeling of ‘powerlessness’—is there anything less shame-inducing than that for the Westernized Male?)
Our potency is not something we tend to think about until it’s not working
Ideas of Health Tend to Not Include Reproductive Health
There is an expectation that this part of ourselves should just “work.” From early on, we are taught that our health is not to be taken for granted. We’re told as kids to limit our sugar intake and stay away from fatty foods. We’re constantly hearing about smoking, and drinking, and drug use. We’re given information and there is an ongoing focus on maintaining good health. We learn that we need to take care of ourselves so that our body will remain functioning as optimally as possible.
We are told very little, as boys and young men, about preventative reproductive health (with the occasional warning against wearing underwear that’s too tight or eating too much soy.)
Our potency is not something we tend to think about until it’s not working. And when the unexpected breaks down—when what we’ve just taken for granted stops working—panic sets in.
When that has to do with sex—more panic.
This can chip away at our already tenuous grounding in the insecurities of being a man. And that’s a long way to fall down.
Destigmatize the Language
The language of infertility doesn't help much either. It’s amazing how much of the language around infertility in men has been euphemistically coopted toward shame. Think of the sit-coms that have used phrases such as “shooting blanks” and “slow swimmers,” but even the medical terms don’t sit well, such as “low motility” and “low sperm count.” (Actually, any time the word “low” is introduced to something that we’ve come to think of as Manly is a shame-inducing blow to our egos.)
Medical terms have never simply been scientifically distancing (although don’t let this stop yourself from educating yourself about male infertility. These terms are important, but they may not be enough to undo the emotional resistance.) Saying a man has ‘high blood pressure’ or a ‘weak heart’ never simply meant a medical concern. It was almost universally a way of attacking how strong and, yes, virile he was.
We know that bad cholesterol numbers and cancer cells say nothing about who we are as people, but we’ve always been able to bypass that logic.
Other Health Conditions Don't Hit at Manliness
We know that bad cholesterol numbers and cancer cells say nothing about who we are as people, but we’ve always been able to bypass that logic and feel like our potency is being attacked when it comes to infertility; having a low sperm count means as little about who we are as men as our LDL numbers do.
We need to collectively undo the idea that our medical conditions define the kind of men we are. We should reframe our approach so it is how we approach these conditions that are the signifiers about the men we want to be.
Asking for Help Can Feel Like Inviting More Shame
Let’s back up for a bit from all this penis talk and think a bit more generally.
One of the core challenges of living in a society that values independence and individuality to such a great extent is that it is increasingly difficult (and, again, shameful) to ask for help. Add that to the long list of things that “Real Men” don’t do and the shame increases.
We’re supposed to know how to do things. How to fix things. How to untangle all the problems by tinkering around and asserting more control over situations. It’s what’s worked for us before and it’s a core stereotype of men (think back to all the refusing-to-ask-for-directions jokes).
We don’t like to do it, but I’ll wager that we have all, several times in our lives, had to take a breath and ask someone for help. That we’ve needed an expert opinion (who was not Google or YouTube, but a real person). We’ve gone to our parents, siblings, friends, partners—or just realized we needed to ask that stranger for advice.
Yes, You Can Allow Yourself to be Vulnerable. You Can Even Practice it...
So take a minute, close your eyes, and imagine a time you had to ask for help. When you had to expose a vulnerability by letting someone else—stranger or not—know that there was something you didn’t know. (If you really can’t consider a time when you’ve asked for assistance, then take a moment to imagine what would need to happen for you to do it and use that energy.)
Got it? Ok, now remember the feeling that got you to do this. What level did you need to "sink" to in order to take that first step? Once you come up with something, remember the feelings around it. Next, recall the feeling when you received the help you had asked for and were able to move forward in whatever you were trying to do.
This is important. We call this reaching for exceptions because once we find that we have successfully done something at least once, we know how to muster the energy to do it again. We’ve already proven that we can be vulnerable and that it didn’t kill us (Yay!) Channel this to help bring you to the even more vulnerable place of accepting help from doctors and other experts on your way toward managing male infertility.
It’s amazing how much of the language around infertility in men has been euphemistically coopted toward shame.
Consider What is at Stake
What is really at stake for you? What if your expectations for yourself, your body, your sperm, and your identity do need to undergo a re-evaluation—would that be worth it?
If you are putting off fertility treatment by saying you’re just “too busy” or that you’ll get around to it later, ask yourself if it is truly worth delaying your chance to become a father; your chance to be a co-parent with someone you love and who is very likely desperately waiting for you to confront the possibilities you never believed you’d have to call into question.