The Fertility Factor

In the 20th century, many innovations in sperm research have emerged out of scientists' attempts to understand male infertility. Men exposed to both environmental and occupational toxins have reported consistently higher rates of infertility, yet there is no universal agreement as to its cause.13 There has been much debate in the fields of epidemiology, toxicology, and infertility regarding this increasing rate of men's infertility. As male fertility continues to be compromised by what some presume to be increasing environmental toxins, patients and researchers will more assiduously pursue biomedical solutions.

Richard Spark's review of the male fertility literature suggests that for global sperm count "the persistent trend is unquestionably downward."14 With such a wide variety of risk factors, it's not surprising that men's fertility has become increasingly compromised. For example, some diseases lead to male infertility; these include cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and some sexually transmitted diseases. Environmental factors such as pesticides and herbicides (including estrogen-like chemicals), hydrocarbons (found in products like asphalt, crude oil, and roofing tar), heavy metals (used in some batteries, pigments, and plastics), and aromatic solvents (used in paint, varnish, stain, glue, and metal de-greasers) have all been suspected of lowering sperm counts and damaging morphology.15 Furthermore, men and boys may lower their sperm count through tobacco exposure, whether chewing or smoking,16 and prenatal exposure to tobacco has been shown to lower sperm counts in male offspring.17 Excessive alcohol consumption, marijuana smoking, and obesity also affect sperm counts and sperm performance. Endurance bicycling has been shown to significantly alter sperm mor-phology.18 Researchers are now calling for studies of humans to determine if storing cellular phones near the testicles in the front pocket of pants decreases semen quality.19

Interestingly, many of the infertility risk factors cited here involve behaviors, occupations, or activities that are commonly associated with stereotypical notions of masculinity. As reported in many sociological and psychological studies, however, women overwhelmingly bear the blame of infertility and the brunt of more invasive treatments. Even though infertility is typically explained as one-third male factor, one-third female factor, and one-third unknown, women self-report feeling as if it is their responsibility and their failure when reproduction does not occur. But clearly male bodies, too, can be implicated by infertility, and men experience stigma from being diagnosed with low sperm counts. Indeed, in a clinician's guidebook to diagnosing motility problems, Spark instructs that low-motility sperm "appear to move as if befuddled. They possess no purposeful forward motion and occasionally exhibit circular or erratic movement patterns."20 What happens when the performance of masculinity produces what is perceived as a profoundly "unmasculine" result in the form of lower sperm counts and even infertility? Individual men have reported psychological consequences of low sperm counts in the form of humiliation, despair, and depression.21 Indeed, declining sperm counts matter to the social body, as well as to individual bodies.

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