Infertility stigma: a man’s world?

One researcher defined stigma as when an individual is perceived as being outside of a socially defined norm, which leads to their social identity being damaged and exclusion or prejudice in everyday life.

And as if those suffering with fertility problems didn’t have enough on their plates, they often have to contend with a stigma that comes attached to their condition. This is because – in most cultures – having children is seen as such an integral part of men’s and women’s lives, that a couple’s lack of children (whether voluntary or involuntary) can be frowned upon.

To make matters worse, sex – and many factors linked to it – are still are a taboo subject. This means, as a society, we are still pretty clueless as to how to handle sexual topics when they crop up in everyday conversation. And as infertility can be seen as a sexual problem, the stigma of the topic can be worsened.

Although stigma might not be applied purposefully or maliciously, it can still be hurtful. Well-meant comments like “maybe if you relax you’ll fall pregnant” are a good example of times when supposedly comforting advice can make infertile couples feel even worse and show just how little many people know about infertility.

And prejudice to infertile couples can be even worse in developing countries with different cultural views and behaviours. One study conducted in Northern Ghana found that infertile couples were often excluded from important community leadership roles and denied access to the ancestral world. Another researcher also noticed how a lot of infertile couples in developing countries travel to western countries to seek treatment so they can avoid the scrutiny they’d get in their own countries.

The stigma of male infertility

It seems men have it even worse when it comes to this stigma attached to fertility problems. One researcher said that whilst society offers infertile women emotional support, it ridicules infertile men. But why is this? Is it even true?

One of the reasons might be because of the traditional views society has about men and women. Our typical views of masculinity mean that we subconsciously expect men to be self-reliant, to be physically and emotionally strong and to be in control of their bodies and emotions, amongst other things. Our views of femininity are different. We often expect women to be caring, emotional and happy to give and accept help from others.

According to one study, when it comes to having children, this means that masculinity is associated with potency and sexual success, and a man is credited on his ability to get a woman pregnant. On the other hand, femininity is linked to caring and nurturing for children, and this is what women are credited for (rather than their ability to actually get pregnant).

Infertility therefore threatens a man’s masculinity (for example by undermining his physical control) in a way it does not threaten a woman’s feminine image. Some researchers therefore believe that male infertility is more stigmatised.

Are infertile men really more stigmatised?

Worried man
Warten by kohlmann.sascha | CC

But does this really mean that men have a harder time when it comes to coping with infertility in their daily lives? Unfortunately, all the evidence seems to point that way.

One researcher interviewed infertile men and found that about two thirds of them felt stigmatised and worried because of their threatened male identity. Another study found that men and women associated male infertility with higher amounts of stigma and difficulty than female infertility, mainly because of the damaged masculine ego.

According to other researchers, even the language society uses can add to this prejudice against male infertility sufferers. They noticed that the language in newspaper stories about sperm count declines linked male infertility to weakness, vulnerability and emphasised infertility as a threat to masculinity. Talk of sperm counts also belittled men by pitting them against each other in a competitive measure of their masculinity.

The consequences of male infertility stigma

One researcher claimed that the added stigma around male infertility and the threat it poses to masculinity has meant that it has been researched less than female infertility.

Even though infertility affects men and women equally, this was only discovered fairly recently. It was once believed that infertility was always a woman’s problem. In 1979 scientists believed that only 18% of infertility cases stemmed from males, a figure that – in reality – is actually now known to be 30%.

And because of this lack of male fertility research, infertility is very much a woman’s world. Most fertility clinics offer a range of tests and treatments to diagnose and treat women’s fertility problems, but only a handful for men. Because of this, it is now routine for women to undergo invasive treatments to resolve fertility problems that may have arisen in their partners. It is also estimated that three quarters of female fertility issues can be fixed, compared to only one third of male problems.

Aside from the medical problems male infertility stigma might have caused, it of course has a big emotional impact too.

Researchers have found that the stigma of male infertility means that sufferers tend to tell less people about their problems and seek less medical support. One study observed that up to 30% of men in some countries do not attend the first fertility specialist appointment with their partner. Another study even noticed that sometimes women pretend that it is them who are infertile to protect their partners from prejudice.

Breaking down the barriers

But it’s not all bad news. It seems the future is looking brighter with regards to infertility stigma for all parties involved.

Now that our research is starting to reflect how infertility really affects men and women, we can hope to see a rise in fertility tests and treatments for men and less reliance on the current tests and treatments for women.

The media’s recent interest in all-things-fertility will also hopefully help to teach us how to discuss infertility in a better way that can allow us to break down the barriers of stigma for good.

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