Toby Trice, 31, and his partner, Katie Housley, 31, had been trying for a baby for six years before they discovered the real reason they couldn’t get pregnant: Trice’s fertility was the problem, not Housley’s. Worse still: it’s a discovery that could have been made years earlier, before the two IVF cycles and two miscarriages, if he had done a simple five-minute non-invasive test.
Trice, a semi-professional racing driver, was eventually diagnosed with a varicocele problem, which affects 15-20% of men. Three months after a simple two-hour operation to remove swollen veins from her testicles, the couple discovered Housley was pregnant. They now have a 10-month-old son, Oliver, but that hasn’t rid Trice of the trauma. “I still feel incredibly moved knowing that what we went through could have been avoided had I been checked earlier,” he says of their £15,000 IVF journey. “I’m frustrated with the system because it could have avoided all this grief.”
Trice may be one of a depressing number of men happy to talk about their experiences with infertility, but her story is more common than you might think. It is believed that one in seven UK couples experience infertility problems and in 50% of these cases it is the male’s fertility that is causing the problem, not the female’s. Testicular problems and sperm abnormalities are common reasons – and even without any medical issues, sperm counts in the developed world would have halved in the past 40 years.
It turns out that men also have their own fertility clocks to consider. A new study has found that the male biological clock has a bigger impact on fertility than originally thought, with a ‘significant drop’ in live birth rates in women between the ages of 35 and 40, if the partner male is 40 or older – a fact that could be due to declining sperm quality and DNA damage with age.
Professor Geeta Nargund, study co-author and medical director of Create Fertility, says many couples have no idea, but it can take five times longer to conceive when a woman has a male partner. over 45, and the risk of miscarriage is twice as high. (compared to those with partners under 25). For fathers over 45, the risk of mental health disorders, including autism and ADHD, is also higher.
‘[Male fertility] has been a very taboo subject until now,” explains Nargund, explaining that stories of older famous fathers such as Rupert Murdoch, Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger, who all had children in their 60s and 60s, have “ blinded” many men to the fact that they have a biological clock. The truth, she says, is that for every Jagger, there are men in their 40s and 50s who are “devastated” to find out they’re too late to conceive naturally.
Being fertile is tied to your masculinity, so worrying about my fertility feels like an admission of weakness.
Nargund’s goal is not to scare. There is already enough anxiety surrounding fertility. Rather, she wants to raise awareness and restore that gender balance — not just because too much of the fertility burden falls on women, but because men, too, are underserved. Many are unaware of the real facts about their fertility and continued misogyny and embarrassment around the issue means fewer men are being proactively vetted. This is important given that men have fewer fertility “reminders” such as periods, says Dulwich fertility expert Dr Hana Patel.
When men eventually find out they might be having fertility issues, Nargund says it can be both “devastating” and “emasculating”, impacting their work, relationships and mental health. “I felt helpless,” broadcaster Simon Reeve, 50, said after being told he was infertile. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” agrees Kevin Button, 37, a construction worker, who says his relationship fell apart after he was diagnosed with infertility. “I was so angry but felt like I couldn’t tell anyone.”
For others, even the prospect of infertility can be isolating. “It’s been pretty lonely, my male friends don’t really talk about these things,” says Max*, 29, an Elephant and Castle recruiter who is considering private fertility testing after discovering that a male member of the family had infertility issues. “Being fertile is linked to your masculinity, so worrying about my fertility feels like an admission of weakness,” says Gus*, 30, a videographer from Brixton who recently read about the male biological clock, but says that there is too much male “bravado” to share concerns with friends. So why does the burden of fertility still generally fall on women? What’s stopping men from talking about it – and is anything being done to change that?
Kate Brian, operations manager at charity Fertility Network UK, says the problem is due to public messaging. While men’s partners and girlfriends may talk about fertility starting in their twenties, men tend not to. “The general feeling is that [fertility] has no impact on men,” says Simon*, 30, a shopkeeper from Vauxhall. “It’s hard to know if it’s out of disinterest in [our] part or a lack of education,” says Duncan Wilson, 29, an accountant from Greenwich. The only time fertility comes up among his friends is in a ‘joking’ way when he talks about riding a bike or putting a laptop in his lap, two of the most talked about lifestyle choices that could reduce sperm count.
Several publicly known men have attempted to bridge this educational gap by sharing their own stories. Reeve has opened up about how “unfitted” he was when he found out he was infertile (he’s since had a son, naturally, thanks to a lifestyle “overhaul” that boosted his sperm). Hollyoaks star Adam Rickitt, 44, has opened up about the ‘agonizing’ moment he had to tell his wife he was infertile. And comedian Rhod Gilbert, 53, last year launched a documentary as part of his HimFertility campaign, encouraging men to speak out more.
Gilbert’s BBC show was well-received, but her brief media appearances, those of Reeve and Rickitt, pale in comparison to the onslaught of messages audiences are fed about female celebrities going through Fertility ‘battles’ and male celebrities ‘always [having] that’s when they become older fathers.
I feel like men are being bullied because they don’t get the same kind of help with their fertility
Dr Laura Dodge, who led the world’s first study on the male biological clock, says fertility is “the one area of health where men have been neglected”. Research on paternal age is only relatively new, and health care is still catching up. While women are widely encouraged to check their breasts and have Pap smears, there is less emphasis on men’s reproductive health, although male fertility tests are cheaper and less invasive (private tests cost 500 £ for women and only £150 for men).
Patel says she feels sad for men in this regard. “When men come to me, they say, ‘I didn’t know [things like cycling could affect my sperm count] or how to check my testicles”. I feel like men are bullied because they don’t get the same kind of help.
It’s not just in medicine that men are abused. There’s also a cultural divide – just last year Cambridge University came under fire for introducing fertility seminars for female students instead of male students. As well as placing the burden of fertility unfairly on women, it can leave men in shock when starting a family doesn’t go as planned. “Sometimes men feel they need to be strong and supportive, but infertility can be just as painful for them,” says Brian.
The good news, says Patel, is that there are simple things men can do to boost their fertility, like wearing baggy boxers and improving their physical condition. Another positive is that we are talking more about male fertility than 20 years ago. Fertility Network UK is now running government-funded Freshman Week Fertility Sessions at universities across Scotland and Wales. He also runs fertility support groups for men across the country.
Others are joining – slowly – the male fertility crusade, like Button, who started mental health support group The Man Cave following his diagnosis, and Trice, who uses the field traditionally “ macho” of motorsport to campaign for better conversations. around male fertility. His @tobytriceracing Instagram account is filled with messages for men to get tested and has over 2,000 mostly male followers.
Although the conversation on social media seems to be gaining momentum, Trice says there’s still a long way to go. He campaigns for men to have their fertility tested before women and for varicocele surgery like his to be available on the NHS. Nargund, on the other hand, focuses on education. She gave a TED talk on the importance of fertility lessons in schools and lobbied for it to be made part of the national curriculum – not because we should be pressuring young people to start families, says it, but because we should reduce the stigma and ’empowering [boys and young men] make decisions about their future.
Right now, “you’re pretty much taught that having sex will make someone pregnant,” says Natalie Silverman, host of The Fertility Podcast, whose partner suffered from infertility.
Brian says she would like to see government-funded fertility sessions introduced at English universities, as they are in Scotland and Wales, and Nargund is among those calling for greater support in the workplace and beyond. Where are the posters urging men to check their fertility? Where is the Movember-wide male fertility campaign?
Nargund says she would urge men to learn about their fertility if they have a personal health issue or a family history of infertility. For everyone else – men and women – the most important thing is to educate yourself and start talking. “Fertility seems to be the last male taboo,” says Trice. ‘We need to change that.’ The clock is turning.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality reasons