Charlie, a 39-year-old lawyer in Australia, abused drugs like ecstasy, speed, ketamine and meth from the age of 16 throughout most of his 20s. This caused him to worry about his fertility when he got older. “My concerns weren’t really fully thought out,” Charlie says (all names have been changed for privacy). “It was more the general sense that I was poisoning my body, which was certainly affecting my sexual function, and I guess I conflated that with my fertility.”
These concerns were a blow to his sense of masculinity. “I definitely felt like I’d be less of a man if I weren’t able to have a child,” he continues. “I also felt like any partners I had would think me less of a man if they thought I couldn’t have children. If anything didn’t work, whether that was because of erectile disfunction or infertility or whatever, then that devalued me as a man, in my eyes — and, I thought, in everyone else’s.”
In a personal essay for The Guardian, “Men Have No Idea What Women Go Through to Have Children,” writer Mandy Len Catron details her 18-month ordeal to get pregnant, despite not being entirely sure she even wants children. She wonders out loud why, although she’s more ambivalent about having kids than her partner is, she’s “the one with all the anxiety” about their fertility, and concludes that it’s because she’s a woman. “Yes, Mark has done a handful of tests now, too,” she writes. “But he isn’t reading articles that interview men about their fears related to infertility because those articles don’t exist. I’d genuinely like to know what men think about their fertility.”
In response to Len Catron’s prompt, I interviewed 12 men between the ages of 23 and 51 about their relationship with their own fertility. Unsurprisingly, how any one man thinks about his ability to father children seems to vary hugely depending on his age, fertility status, medical history, how much he wants children and his personal anxieties and neuroses about the topic. What’s clear from my discussions, though, is that men do think about their fertility, and many are deeply concerned about it.
That said, some men do breeze through the early years of their life unbothered by fertility concerns, like Daniel, a 32-year-old writer from Minneapolis who says that for the first 30 years of his life, he never thought about his fertility at all. “I never wondered if I might be infertile, and just thoughtlessly assumed that I could father children if I eventually wanted to,” he explains to me by Twitter DM. “[Declining fertility or infertility] just weren’t concerns of mine — there was zero anxiety there.”
In the end, Daniel was right to be unconcerned about the prospect of infertility, and he ended up having an almost opposite problem. “My wife was pregnant the very next month after we started trying,” he tells me. “Two months after that she miscarried, but then she was pregnant again the month after that. Our daughter was born in April and — whoops — she was pregnant again by August. After three pregnancies just inside a calendar year, my new concern is not being the Duggar family.”
Daniel’s blasé attitude seems to be more common in young men, which makes sense: Young men are less likely to be thinking about starting families in the first place, given that men are waiting longer to have children, and they’re also less likely than older men to have problems with their fertility. “The ability to father a child declines as men get older,” Michael L. Eisenberg, the head of male reproductive medicine and surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, told the New York Times in 2019. “Semen quality diminishes — volume lessens with age and the motility and shape of sperm decline a little.”
But other men I speak to are far less nonchalant about their fertility, especially when they have reason to suspect they might struggle to have children. Gerald, a 30-year-old teacher from Canada, lost his fertility because of “some really harsh cancer treatments” in his early 20s, and while he got his sperm frozen beforehand, he’s now wondering whether to keep paying for the storage. “It’s partially the cost and partially that my partner and I are wondering [if having kids] is right for us,” he explains. “Also, even if we did choose to have kids, using my sperm might mean the kids would be predisposed to have cancer.”
Gerald says opting to stop the storage feels “strange, daunting, serious and permanent.” “It’s a big decision, even though we’re leaning toward not having kids,” he continues. “The cancer treatments left me infertile, but my fertility still very much exists in some jar in a lab somewhere. And so it feels like this is the moment, this decision, where I’d potentially be choosing infertility. It’s the type of decision that you only see once in a lifetime, and so, having that level of consequence attached to it feels very weird.”
Other men, of course, choose infertility in a different way, by opting for a vasectomy — either because they’ve finished their families or don’t want to have children. Daniel is considering the procedure to avoid accidentally creating an enormous family, and Dave, a 51-year-old designer from Australia, got a vasectomy about a year ago. For most of his life, he thought of his fertility as a “liability” — he got three partners pregnant in his 20s despite using birth control, and this resulted in expensive abortions that were difficult to access in rural Australia in the early 1990s. A vasectomy made sense, given that he and his current partner don’t want children.
But even voluntary infertility can raise some of the same insecurities about manhood. Writer Christina Caron argues in The New York Times that “cultural expectations about what truly defines a man” are one reason vasectomies are not as common as you might expect, given the advantages of the procedure. And though Daniel says he doesn’t have any “masculinity hangups” of his own about it, other men are vocal about theirs. “There’s the normal ball-busting guys get into about ‘getting fixed,’” he says, “like you’re a dog being neutered.”
Those insecurities about manhood set aside, the prospect of rendering yourself infertile can still be daunting. Despite knowing he doesn’t want children and not “buying into masculine ideas about potency,” Dave describes his vasectomy as “a kind of loss” and “a diminishing.” “One of the sad facts about growing older is that there are things that you realize you’re not going to be able to do, and even if you didn’t want to do them, it’s kind of hard,” he explains. “You realize that you’re never going to be an astronaut, or you’re never going to represent your country at sport, or you’re never going to write a novel, and [not having kids] is one of those sorts of things.”
As for Charlie, he got a partner pregnant at 27 and then had a daughter at the age of 35, which he says mostly “drew a line” through his fears that his drug use rendered him infertile. Despite all the evidence that he’s fertile, though, some doubts that he might not be able to have another child persist, and he worries this could affect how attractive he is to a future partner. “There is such a strong message drilled into us that equates masculinity with sexual function — the ability to have sex and to father a child,” he explains. “There’s still some lingering stigma around vasectomies, infertility and ‘shooting blanks,’ and people still use ‘manhood’ as a euphemism for the reproductive organs. If I can’t give my partner the child they want, then what good am I as a man?”
“The thing is, I entirely disagree with all of the above at an objective level — it’s just plumbing,” Charlie adds. “But the conditioning is really hard to shake.”