When discussing infertility, it is almost always seen as a woman’s issue. After all, it is the woman who goes through different invasive fertility treatments such as IVF to become pregnant. And if successful, it is the woman who carries the child for nine months. On top of which, it is culturally ingrained in every nation across the globe to associate motherhood with being a ‘real’ woman. It is the first identity women had in society. So it isn’t surprising to learn that many men dealing with infertility issues are feeling quite isolated and alone in their struggles.
Most male infertility problems are due to deficiencies in the semen such as low sperm concentration (oligospermia), poor semen motility, meaning its ability to move (asthenospermia), and abnormal sperm morphology, meaning its form or shape (teratospermia). What can cause problems in sperm count, motility, or morphology is an array of factors—some fixable, some not. Recent research has shown that of all infertility cases, approximately 40-50% is due to “male factor” infertility. It is clearly a common issue amongst men trying to start a family. And the problem is on the rise.
Studies have shown a rise in male infertility all across the globe. As early as the 1980s, researchers noticed a downward trend in semen quality and count among men. Studies from Finland to Tunisia to France show a steady decline in semen quality over the years. In India, over a period of 13 years, they found a shocking 30.31% decline in sperm count. Researchers are trying to figure out an underlying cause to explain this universal decline but there seems to be no that’s clear cut cause. There has been a rise in testicular cancer but that only explains a fraction of male infertility cases. The decline is still a mystery to be solved but for now, researchers are taking into factor environmental, nutritional, socioeconomic, or even psychological causes.
So where does all this research leave infertile men? For decades, infertility has been treated from the female end and all that time has allowed for support groups, therapy sessions, and the general awareness and acceptance of female infertility to arise. For many men who are only recently becoming aware of their infertility, they feel quite isolated and embarrassed to talk about their struggles. In 2017, a British study surveyed infertile men, asking how infertility affected their lives. 93% said it had a negative impact on their well-being and self-esteem. Yet nearly 40% of them had not sought support.
Much like women finding infertility a mark against their femininity, men find admitting their infertility as a mark against their masculinity. But they are not without reason to feel this. Female infertility has had a long history and is widely known and accepted as a possibility for women. But male infertility is still relatively new. It isn’t widely discussed and the research is still lacking due to men too reluctant or ashamed to join trials. So infertile men might feel amongst the general populace a tinge of judgement against their manhood.
Even in the age of the internet, where anonymity is the default setting for most, men are having trouble finding support groups. Facebook infertility groups for women count hundreds of thousands of members within its ranks. Same kinds of groups for men have trouble breaking into even a thousand members. Infertility is a difficult and disappointing issue to work through even with support groups. So to go it alone can feel devastatingly lonesome and impossible.
But male infertility shouldn’t feel like a lonesome problem to face. Although the male infertility isn’t discussed as prevalently as female infertility, help is available. Therapy is always available. If a man feels any kind of embarrassment or shame over his infertility, traditional one on one talk therapy is a great way to work through those issues. After all, even though infertility affects our bodies physically, the impact is felt emotionally.
And while some online spaces, like Facebook, may be slow to include infertile men into their support group spaces, others are seeing the need and taking action. Phyllis Zelkowitz, director of research in psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal are now testing an app they’ve developed called, Infotility, that offers men steps to take to improve their fertility as well as a message board to share and discuss their problems with others who would understand.
Infertility affects not only the sufferer but the couple as a whole as well. As partners to infertile men, women should offer an open ear and an understanding space to talk. Couples suffering through infertility benefit greatly from couples counseling as well. It allows each partner a space to talk out their emotions while also gaining a better understanding in how to support their partners through this issue.
Male infertility is an alarming global health issue that millions of men are dealing with across the world. It is an issue that needs more research and study to truly understand the magnitude and prevalence. To help male infertility gain wider recognition and acceptance, we need to reduce the barriers and stigmas associated with male infertility so that patients can open up and more comfortably share their problems. We need to create more awareness about male infertility by offering more public education on the topic and creating support groups for those afflicted by this problem. Because this is not just a medical problem, it is also an emotional one as well. But it is not an emotional journey anyone has to go on alone.