Viewfinder Magazine

Male Factor Infertility and the Media: Masculinity and the Hegemonic Hierarchy
by Rebecca Feasey

We are routinely informed that infertility ‘the world over, remains largely a woman’s problem’ (Van Balen and Inhorn 2002: 19). Evelina Sterling makes this point when she tells us that ‘[e]ven though there are as many infertile men as women, women have traditionally borne the brunt of the medical, social, and cultural burdens when a couple fails to become pregnant’ and that ‘[t]hroughout history, reproductive health has been “women’s business;” even today, culture and medicine clearly define “infertility” as a “woman’s problem”’ (Sterling 2013: 15). Liberty Barnes puts it more bluntly when she tells us that ‘when a woman gets pregnant, the man gets credit. When a woman can’t get pregnant, it’s her fault’ (Barnes 2014a, 2014b). Moreover, it is women who routinely write as infertility bloggers, speak as vloggers and appear in those televisual texts dedicated to the diagnosis in question (Feasey forthcoming). Likewise, women are routinely more proactive then their male counterparts in seeking assisted reproductive treatments and technologies, and researching the surrogacy and adoption process (Becker 2000, Greil 2002). In short, men rarely appear in a conversation about infertility, involuntarily childlessness, assisted, or third-party reproduction.

When a couple is diagnosed with infertility, men speak of trying to manage their own disappointment, isolation and fear with a desire to stay strong for their partners. This desire to stay strong is rooted in a hegemonic model of masculinity that champions stoic, resilient and independent masculinity over sensitivity, connectedness and emotionality (Connell 1995, Connell 1998). However, this desire to maintain hegemonic credentials puts men under greater stress as they struggle, routinely in silence and isolation, with the lived reality of an infertility diagnosis. Richard Clothier makes this point when he tells us that 'I felt so guilty that I couldn’t “come up with the goods” … and I had to try and deal with that while helping my wife. I focused entirely on her, and completely closed off to the idea of talking to people who had no personal experience of infertility about how I felt’ (Clothier 2017). Like many of their female counter-parts men often ‘feel stigmatized in a childless situation since cultural ideals about manhood are often intertwined with cultural ideas about fertility and virility’ (Sterling 2013: 15). Indeed, ‘when a man cannot “get his wife pregnant,” he may feel that others (including his own partner) view him as less of a man’ (ibid). Hegemonic masculinity is rarely equated with sensitive or connected iterations of fatherhood (Feasey 2008, Kaufman 2013), and yet the pinnacle of hegemonic manhood speaks of ‘a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power’ (Kimmel 2004: 184, emphasis in original), with fertility and the ability to procreate as a key demonstration of appropriate masculinity here.

Esmée Hanna and Brendan Gough worked with Britain’s national fertility charity, Fertility Network UK in order to understand the ways in which men experience involuntary childlessness on the back of an infertility diagnosis, and their findings foreground feelings of shame and stigma because these men associate healthy masculinity with procreation:

It’s in our DNA to make babies. That’s the purpose of sex when you are older is to make babies. It made me feel worthless that I couldn’t have kids (anon cited in Hannah and Gough 2017).

It made me feel less of a man at the time knowing I may never father a child (anon cited in Hannah and Gough 2017).

I thought less of myself as a person and as a man. I felt it was nature’s way of telling me there is something wrong with me and that’s why I am not able to have kids (anon cited in Hannah and Gough 2017)

Away from the anonymous postings, Clothier informs us that he was:

I had to deal with people joking about firing blanks … I couldn’t move past the stigma. I barely told anyone about it … I felt like I’d failed (Clothier 2017).

There is the suggestion that the silence, stigma and shame that surrounds male factor infertility might be changing, after all, bespoke online spaces and support services exist for those men who wish to share their experiences with other men who understand the social, sexual and relational problems that can stem from an infertility diagnosis. However, the fact that these voices are routinely anonymised and removed from their friends, family and lived experiences means that this dialogue does little to quash the wider stigma, quell the silence or debunk the longstanding and ubiquitous link between masculinity and virility here.

It is rare for men affected by infertility to speak out about their diagnosis, much less so, openly, and with this in mind, media representations of subfecundity and celebrity infertility narratives might be championed and by interested and invested audiences for opening up a dialogue about infertility, third-party assisted conception and artificial reproductive technologies (Wertman 2013, Donato 2016). However, while work exists to account for the ways in which women respond to such female confessionals (Feasey 2014), there is little acknowledgement of the ways in which male celebrity infertility narratives might encourage men to share their stories and make sense of their own, and broader, reproductive disruptions.

It is crucially important to examine the ways in which celebrities discuss male factor infertility in the gossip and entertainment arena, and to consider the ways in which they can help to open up a dialogue about involuntary childlessness. Only when candid conversations relating to infertility, involuntary childlessness and assisted reproductive technologies become commonplace will we be able to replace our current experiences of shame and silence with genuine understanding and meaningful support. Although male factor celebrity infertility stories could play an important role in debunking traditional iterations of masculinity which encourage men to self-censure and thus experience shame and isolation on the back of an infertility diagnosis, it can be difficult to find such stories.

Still from Children of Men

By way of a routine example, a popular listicle entitled ‘15 Celeb Men You Didn’t Know Struggled with Infertility’ foregrounds female factor infertility, idiopathic infertility and pregnancy loss … with little to say about male factor infertility in general, or the feelings experienced by those men who are diagnosed (Patel 2017).

From Kanye West to Nick Cannon, these men are cited as struggling with infertility, but it is routinely referred to as the couple’s difficulty in conceiving, or the wife’s inability to carry a pregnancy to term (ibid). The fact that the men on this list, with the exception of Hugh Jackman, all go on to have what are either stated or implied to be their own biological children via IVF or gestational surrogacy leads the reader to believe that the diagnosis was not necessarily male-factor. In short, in a listicle dedicated to the topic of male infertility, the notion of male-factor infertility is itself side-lined. There is a sense that the male voice is routinely overlooked in infertility narratives which is sending misleading messages about diagnosis and failing to offer support to those who are affected. In a recent article on male factor infertility in GQ, the magazine offers a punchy headline and seemingly nihilistic opener that reads:

Sperm Count Zero A strange thing has happened to men over the past few decades: We’ve become increasingly infertile, so much so that within a generation we may lose the ability to reproduce entirely. What’s causing this mysterious drop in sperm counts - and is there any way to reverse it before it’s too late? (Halpern 2018).

And although by the end of the article the reader is well versed in the facts, figures and statistics related to the decreasing sperm count and quality of the average western male, the article fails to acknowledge the thoughts or feelings of those men whose depleted sperm count disrupts or destroys family building plans. Although the reader is better informed about the dwindling sperm count, and ways to help alleviate the decline, they have little understanding of what it means to experience involuntary childlessness, because it is so rarely discussed or acknowledged within or beyond the celebrity circuit.

Still from The Handmaid's Tale

Shifting our attentions from print to screen, the topic of male factor, female factor and idiopathic infertility are evident in the entertainment arena. Indeed, Jennifer Maher has noted that irrespective of whether you are watching Children of Men (2006), Juno (2007) or What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012), ‘reproduction - accidental, thwarted, eliminated by environmental disaster, or made possible by American medicine - is a near-obsessive theme’ (Maher 2014: 854). Add to this list, Baby Mama (2008), The BabyMakers (2012), The Good Girl (2002), The New Normal (2012-13), The Girl on the Train (2016), The Light Between Oceans (2016) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ) and it is clear that the topic of infertility and non-traditional family building has emerged as a recurring theme on screen. Mainstream film and television productions present family building as the only acceptable, mature and responsible life choice in a pronatal period, while foregrounding a hierarchy of acceptable parenting practices. We are reminded that:

Among those trying to conceive, there’s a hierarchy of preference for how. Obviously, the easiest and least costly is just plain sex. Then there’s IVF - today, such a ‘normal’ medical procedure that people often don’t mention it. And why should they? These ‘test-tube babies’ use the mother’s oocytes and father’s sperm, so they’re genetically related to both parents, not to mention carried by the mother: equal in almost every way to natural conception. Lower on the totem pole is what’s called ‘third-party reproduction’, the use of an individual outside the primary relationship to make a baby possible. Everyone knows about sperm donation, with thousands of banks where you can choose a guy like from an online dating profile; single mothers are not ashamed to admit creating a child using their own genes combined with those of a (tall, hot, smart) stranger. It’s so acceptable there’s even been a Vince Vaughn comedy - Delivery Man - about it. Surrogacy, in which a woman outside the relationship carries the couple’s embryo until birth, has also made it to the mainstream. There’s the 2008 Tina Fey/Amy Poehler movie Baby Mama, not to mention countless celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon and Sarah Jessica Parker telling the world that surrogates carried their babies, created from the couples’ own sperm and eggs (Klein 2015, emphasis in original see also: Letherby 1999: 367, Klein 2015, Morton and Bell 2016).

Biological parenthood is, we are told, ‘more highly valued’ than adoptive parenting (Letherby 2003: 60). However, as mentioned previously, in relation to the hierarchy of hegemonic parenthood, in a pronatal period, adoption is more appropriate and thus more acceptable than voluntary or involuntary childlessness (Letherby 1999).

And although a growing number of screen productions have teased us with the possibility of involuntary childlessness, very few texts leave the audience without the promise or possibility of parenthood. Hollywood romantic comedies have exploited the ‘accidental wanted’ pregnancy plot twist whereby late 30 and 40-something characters find themselves falling naturally pregnant amidst assisted reproduction treatments (Maher 2014: 854). Outside of the romantic comedy and its accidental wanted pregnancy trope, adoption exists as the next and perhaps final option for those characters who were unsuccessful in their assisted reproductive treatments and technologies. While The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012), exploited Disney magic and fantasy in order to position our central protagonists as adoptive parents at final screen close, more recently, Private Life (2018) takes a darker and more emotionally raw journey from parents-in-waiting to the possibility of adoptive parenting as the credits roll.

In the latter text it is 47-year old Richard/Paul Giamatti and 42-year old Rachel/Kathryn Hahn who are trying for a child. With one testicle and the looming reality of age-related infertility, the couple forego sex in favour of IVF treatments, egg donation and adoption. Someway along this family building journey we find discover that Richard has a problem producing sperm, which, after an expensive yet quick fix operation, finds him ‘cured’ of his infertility. What cannot be fixed or cured however is the fact that at age 42, Kathryn is unlikely to conceive, naturally or otherwise.

Recent figures make it clear that while there is a 29 percent success rate for women using IVF under the age of 35 and 23 per cent for a woman aged between 35-37 in the UK, this drops down to 15 percent for a woman aged between 38-39, 9 per cent between 40 and 42 and 3 percent for a woman aged between 43 and 44 (NHS 2019). Indeed, the film makes it clear that by using the eggs of a younger donor, their chance of success would raise from 4 to 65 percent. The film does not shy away from the lived reality of infertility, or the experience of male factor infertility, nor does it hide from the emotional, financial and sexual strains that the diagnosis can place on a couple. However, the film stops short of presenting the reality of age-related infertility for the man in question here.

There have been calls to educate children and young people about fertility in general and age-related infertility in particular (Adams 2015, British Fertility Society 2018a, British Fertility Society 2018b, MFM 2018), after all, we must not overlook the fact that age affects the reproductive health of both men and women. After all, even though the media tends to ‘allay fears about older fatherhood by telling readers since a man continually produces new sperm every day, his age does not influence his fertility’ (Sterling 2013: 68), men above the age of 40 are about half as fertile as men under the age of 25 (Pacey cited in Alex Jones: Fertility & Me 2016). Even though popular news reporting on Rod Stewart (60), Clint Eastwood (66), Ronnie Wood (68), Tony Randall (78), Julio Iglesias (87), Anthony Quinn (81) and Saul Bellow (84) provide us with well documented examples of sexagenarian, septuagenarian and octogenarian fatherhood ‘age does affect male fertility’ (ibid)

About the Author:

Rebecca Feasey is Senior Lecturer in Media Communications at Bath Spa University. She has written book length studies on masculinity and popular television (EUP, 2008), motherhood and the small screen (Anthem 20162) and maternal audiences (Peter Lang 2016). She is currently writing about the representation of infertility, assisted reproduction and adoption in the media (Palgrave Macmillan 2019).


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