UK comedian Rhod Gilbert is on a crusade to get men talking about infertility! In his recent BBC documentary, Stand Up to Infertility, Rhod tackles the subject. He shares his personal journey and reaches out to other men to share their feelings. The documentary is brutally honest and sees Rhod visiting The Fertility Show to speak to the experts about male factor. He soon discovers that most of the exhibitors are geared towards treating female patients and found Examen to be the only stand specifically for male patients.
The struggle faced by men
As the documentary continues, Rhod used his social media to ask if any men want to meet him for a pint and discuss the issue. The documentary was filmed pre-Covid and sees Rhod meet with a handful of men in his native Wales for a drink and a chat. That chat was heartbreaking to watch. Some of the men in the group had never discussed their feelings about an infertility diagnosis with anyone before, not even their partners. They spoke of how they so desperately wanted to give their partner the one thing her heart desired, a child. They also spoke of male suicide because infertility had become all consuming. It was raw viewing and really made you appreciate the struggle that men face alone with no support.
Himfertility is born
Rhod then decided to engage the services of an advertising agency to help him launch a male fertility awareness campaign. The ad agency created Himfertility as a brand and designed a supporting website. The introduction states, “Infertility is not just a female issue, men account for around half of all infertility problems and with male infertility rates reportedly on the rise, it’s time to face the issue head on.”
Rhod is no stranger to the issue and is breaking new ground by presenting his serious side when confronting the subject. Although, he did try to interject some humour with suggestions of awareness months such as Spunktember and Cocktober! But the advertising agency’s team didn’t think these campaigns would pass the Advertising Standards Authority!
The face of male infertility
As part of the campaign, they had to persuade Rhod to be the ‘face’ of male infertility, which he wasn’t too keen on doing. He discussed the prospect with his wife Sian. Again, it was raw viewing to see this couple talk about infertility. They talked about how it is ingrained in the male psyche from a young age not to be in touch with their emotions. This led them to a very swift conclusion, attitudes need to change and Rhod was in a position to do something about it.
Sperm counts drop by 60%
Part of the problem is that men don’t tend to share problems easily, this makes it hard for them to ask for help. This leaves them vulnerable to tacitly accepting societal pressure about what a real man does and how a real man behaves. Real men, we are led to believe, do not experience fertility problems. Yet it’s clear that infertility affects around 1 in 7 couples in the UK. This coupled with sperm counts dropping by 60% in the west since 1980, it is now time to break the silence.
Rhod said, “There are very complicated feelings about manhood, virility and masculinity. Basically, we see fertility as a female issue and part of the problem is men’s reluctance to talk about it. My experience was that I didn’t come forward enough, I didn’t ask enough questions.”
Out in public
Once Rhod became the poster boy for the campaign, his next hurdle was to face the public in person. He thought it was embarrassing when the camera crew followed him to the clinic to provide a sample. He had no idea how much more embarrassing this was about to get! Next we see him walking around a Cardiff shopping centre wearing a sandwich board launching Himfertility, an incredibly brave move. He made light of the situation by telling everyone he was Rob Brydon!
As expected, nobody was forthcoming in having a chat about male infertility. But what was very interesting was the interactive aspect of the display. They asked the passing shoppers if they thought male infertility accounted for 50% of infertility. The real shock was that women were under the impression that infertility was mainly a female problem. Rhod also got to engage with a group of young males who were actually quite keen to learn about how they could protect their fertility in the future.
Understanding male factor infertility
Rhod said, “I started the Himfertility campaign after my wife and I had issues trying to conceive. The experiences we had while exploring fertility issues showed me just how little support and understanding there is around male infertility. I wanted to encourage men to open up and talk about the issue and most importantly, to get the right support.”
Causes of male factor
According to the NHS, a common cause of infertility in men is poor-quality semen. Possible reasons for abnormal semen include:
- A lack of sperm: a very low sperm count or no sperm at all
- Sperm that are not moving properly: this makes it harder for sperm to swim to the egg
- Abnormal sperm: sperm can sometimes be an abnormal shape, making it harder for them to move and fertilise an egg.
For Rhod, the problem is that 98% of his sperm do not swim properly. He calls them, “Senile swimmers in need of Zimmers!” But there are other reasons why males might not achieve optimal fertility. These include:
- Infections and illness
- Medicines, drugs and hormones
- Lifestyle factors (drinking, smoking and diet)
- Mental factors (stress and depression).
These subjects are all considerately explored on the Himfertility site and are supported by video case studies. There are also video discussions about myths surrounding male infertility. These include:
- Infertility only affects women
- Men don’t have a body clock
- There’s nothing I can do about my fertility.
Stand up for Andrology
As part of his awareness campaign, he dedicated a night at a Swansea Theatre to Stand Up to Infertility, with the audience wearing the Himfertility merchandise. He highlighted that in the UK there are over 7000 registered Gynaecologists yet only 200 Andrologists. He asked the audience how many knew what a Gynaecolgist was, the majority of the audience raised their hand. When he asked what an Andrologist was, absolutely nobody raised their hand. This proved his point that men don’t even know that there is a medical professional who specialises in men’s reproductive health!
Along came COVID-19
Sadly, just as the campaign was gaining momentum the UK was plunged into the first national lockdown in March 2020. The documentary rejoins Rhod in January 2021 with the sobering update that like so many couples around the world his and Sian’s fertility treatment was postponed.
It was a really sad ending to the documentary as Rhod felt the lockdown meant that he and his swimmers weren’t in good shape. He vowed to get back on track with a healthier lifestyle and get back on the fertility journey.
Rhod, although something of a reluctant champion for male sexual health, should be very proud of being the poster boy for male infertility. He is doing a great job bringing the subject out in the open. Here at The Fertility Hub, we are right behind him and his campaign. We wish him and Sian all the best in their quest to have a family.
The documentary is available on the BBC iplayer for another 11 months. If you and your partner are struggling to conceive then please do take an hour to watch. If you have any questions, then please do get in touch.