Eloise, Founder of Fertility Help Hub, knows first-hand how little support there is for men struggling with infertility. Six months into her trying to conceive journey, Eloise’s husband was diagnosed with Klinefelter Syndrome, and with that came a heartbreaking shock of zero sperm (azoospermia). Eloise’s husband felt alone, terrified and guilty, for not being able to do the one thing he had always dreamed of doing. We speak with male infertility activists to investigate just how little support there is for infertile men.
Words by Sophie Braybrook
“I’d look on the internet for support, and there was nothing. Only in the last six months have I actually seen a difference…” Kevin Button, who was ‘diagnosed infertile’ eight years ago, told Fertility Help Hub.
Before people like Kevin took on the honourable roles of publicly sharing their infertility stories on platforms like The Man Cave, the world of male infertility was filled with an eery silence. But today, we’re seeing more men than ever before speak out on this topic.
Me, My Brother and Our Balls is a recent BBC documentary featuring the 27-year-old Love Island star Chris Hughes and his 28-year-old brother Ben. The programme offers an insight into just some of the heartbreak men can experience when faced with infertility.
The popularity of this documentary, demonstrated by the public’s positive response, has shed light on society’s neglect of infertile men, and a need for support within this realm.
Infertility Doesn’t Discriminate, So Why Do We?
Infertility is largely considered a ‘female problem’, even by the men who are experiencing it. Male infertility activist and British Racing Driver Toby Trice sheds light on a typical man’s response to infertility. Toby told us that he “completely ignored my own feelings” for years after discovering his fertility status, channelling his energy and focus on “just trying to be strong for my partner”, all the while neglecting himself in the process.
But the science shows that infertility doesn’t discriminate. In an interviewwith Fertility Help Hub, Clinica Tambre’s Dr. Marta Zermiani explained that “Male factor is estimated to be present in about 50% of infertility cases.”
So, why, then, are men largely left out of the conversation and support surrounding infertility?
Me, My Brother and Our Balls follows Chris and Ben as they bare all, both literally and metaphorically. We watch as the men receive intimate examinations, wait for life-altering results and see Ben and his partner navigate their futures after a heart-breaking diagnosis.
Chris found a varicocele – a cluster of enlarged veins within his scrotum – when he was 14 years old. But, ignorant to its potential effect on his fertility, he avoided check-ups for several years.
During filming, Chris discovers that 40% of male infertility is caused by varicoceles, and yet, when taken seriously, these enlarged veins are treatable. Concerned for his fertility, Chris checks his sperm count, which, result show, has not been affected by his condition.
Meanwhile, brother Ben has suffered testicular cancer and has had one of his testicles removed. During filming, Ben receives medical tests to check his chances of ever having biological children. Within just moments, viewers see Ben’s world and future turn upside down.
Through this emotional rollercoaster, the brothers consistently push the messages of getting checked and engaging in these uncomfortable and embarrassing conversations in order to both catch male cases of infertility sooner and reduce shame for those already suffering.
Viewers Took to Twitter
Moments after the programme aired, viewers took to Twitter to praise and thank these brave brothers, all the while encouraging their followers to watch their stories. Viewers’ enthusiastic responses to the public figures’ personal acknowledgement of this topic is evidence of just how limited the conversation around male infertility is.
Twitter user Michael Hardy shared his thoughts on the “important programme.” Writing, “Infertility and men’s health, is something that should be talked about a lot more. #MeMyBrotherAndOurBalls”.
Such an important programme. Infertility and men’s health, is something that should be talked about a lot more. #MeMyBrotherAndOurBalls
Meanwhile Rich Burrows shared his personal story after watching the programme. “Shout out to @chrishughes_22 & his bro for doing this, having suffered with Sperm issues myself, it’s something everyone should be aware of, educated on & be able to speak about. #MeMyBrotherandOurBalls”.
Shout out to @chrishughes_22 & his bro for doing this, having suffered with Sperm issues myself, it’s something everyone should be aware of, educated on & be able to speak about. #MeMyBrotherandOurBalls
Through his platform, The Man Cave, Kevin aims to destigmatise male infertility through conversation, “It is vital we talk about male infertility as there are a lot of men suffering,” he told us.
“Acceptance is key, and the sooner a guy can accept his situation the better he will feel, not just for himself, but also in his relationship with his partner.”
Toby echoes Kevin’s method of using conversation as the key to destigmatising male infertility. “This documentary is incredible; the work that Chris and Ben have done to bring this to the forefront of people’s minds is fantastic.”
Toby campaigns to raise awareness for male infertility and runs a support network for men, providing them with the space to talk through their feelings, and listen to other men’s experiences.
“Once I started speaking to more people about it, I felt much more comfortable with my own feelings,” Toby told us, when talking about his own fertility struggles. “I was incredibly surprised with the support I received from friends and family.
“But also, chatting among other guys in my situation and offering them support, helps validate their feelings,” Toby continued. “It is completely okay to feel the way we do, and once you speak to others on a similar path, you’ll find it is surprising how many of your emotions are the same across the board.”
It took Toby the best part of four years, and two losses, to seek support. But when he did, it was a total game-changer.
“I was so pleased I had counselling; I feel everyone should go at least once,” Toby said. “It was the first time I had actually felt like I was being listened to rather than having my feelings questioned.”
During the Hughes brothers’ documentary, viewers gain insight into a conversation with a group of male friends, who are discussing their fertility knowledge… which turns out to be very limited. The scene illuminates how little the average man knows about his own fertility, and highlights issues regarding leaving this important topic out of the education system.
“Education around fertility is so important because I was one of those people who just assumed I’d be able to have a child,” Toby commented. “When I was faced with the possibility that I might not ever be a dad I was petrified.”
With a young following, the Love Island star and his brother hoped to offer a preliminary fertility education to young men, and encourage them to consider checking their fertility status now, rather than waiting until it might be too late.
“I think I’m in a better position than most of my friends who’ve never checked their fertility,” Ben tells viewers, when attempting to remain positive during his diagnosis. “I think myself quite lucky that I’m in that position where I’ve already started having mine looked at and something’s being done about it.”
More Momentum for Male Infertility
The emergence of documentaries like this one, webpages like Kevin’s and support groups like Toby’s are a leap in the right direction, but there’s still so much more to be done.