Having children requires two people, generally speaking, yet the blame often lands on the female partner when a couple cannot conceive. This way of thinking is harmful to both sexes, but it’s largely viewed as a woman’s problem in our society.
It’s reflected as such in popular culture as well. Take Charlotte York from Sex and the City as an example. Her and her new husband Trey MacDougal are having difficulty getting pregnant. Charlotte is willing to try anything, from IVF to acupuncture, while Trey essentially does nothing. This is definitely not the case for everyone, but it has become a microcosm for the deep-seated inequalities of infertility. The woman takes on the role of having to tirelessly “fix” the issue, while the man faces feelings of shame and questions his masculinity.
Although this episode of Sex and the City is a compelling way to explain the point, there are fact-based reasons why women bear the brunt of the infertility burden. Historically, research and support have been geared toward women when it comes to conception and trying to conceive. Family planning services are mostly focused on women. In fact, a study published in 2014 showed that the “prevalence of occasional or frequent (preconception care) delivery was 81% for women and 38% for men.” This means that women, for the most part, are given more opportunities to learn about their infertility, receive guidance from healthcare professionals, and discuss it openly. Conversely, this feeds into the notion within society that infertility is not a man’s problem.
“Until pretty recently there were not many specialists in male reproduction. Without experts in the field, a lot of times male evaluations just weren’t done,” Dr. Michael Eisenberg, an associate urology professor at the Stanford University Medical Center, told Glamour.
Women are also relied upon as “gatekeepers” who push male partners to go to the doctor for checkups or have their sperm tested, he said.
Male infertility contributes to more than half of all cases of childlessness around the world, a scientific article explained, yet infertility remains a woman’s social burden. “Even though 12% of U.S. men ages 25 to 44 are infertile, there are few groups–in person or online–devoted to male infertility,” according to Time Magazine.
Women and people with uteruses (we recognize not all people with uteruses identify as women) who speak up about their infertility issues are often praised. Although there is guilt associated with the inability to conceive, they are often met with understanding and compassion. Comedian Amy Schumer told the Los Angeles Times last summer that she would stop doing IVF and wouldn’t be able to get pregnant again. She shared her experience and her long road to her first pregnancy in an Instagram post in February 2020. The headlines surrounding the announcements were positive. She received support from friends and fans alike.
It’s probable that men would receive the same reception, however, there is a layer of anger and shame when it comes to male infertility that leads to silence.
Bradley Goldman, a consultant living in Los Angeles, faced infertility issues when he was trying to conceive with his wife. He’d been taking steroids and lifting heavy weights for about a decade. Two years before trying to get pregnant, he ditched the muscle-enhancing drugs. But he was still infertile. He called the experience “earth-shattering.” Despite his large social media following and his online persona of confidence and fitness, Goldman decided to stay quiet about his struggles on Instagram.
A British TV director by the name of Glenn Barden was unable to conceive with his wife. It led to depression and lots of tears. After visiting many clinics and giving sperm samples, he recalls “hoping that it wasn’t me. Hoping that it was (my wife’s) fault,” while awaiting the results.
“It’s like a judgment on your masculinity,” he told the Guardian. “You do feel like less of a man.”
One way to fight the inequality of infertility is to normalize the conversation surrounding it, Eisenberg said.
“More men will ask me tough questions in a serious way,” he explained, “even in a group setting like a dinner party, rather than in a joking manner, the way they used to.”
These small steps help open up the dialogue and remove the stigma of the male factor.
A crucial part of the process to take the burden off of women is to have men understand their own bodies and advocate for themselves, in terms of healthcare. They should do their own research and seek medical advice or help early on. That’s the only way the conversation about infertility can be equal—with both sides coming to the table informed and ready to tackle problems together, rather than playing the blame game.
Here are organizations that offer support and resources for infertility:
- Resolve: https://resolve.org/infertility-101/medical-conditions/male-factor/
- Fertility Matters: https://fertilitymatters.ca/
- Informed Fertility: https://informedfertility.ca/peer-support/
Always consult a physician for medical advice. If you are having a medical emergency, dial 911.