Your balls are outside your body for a reason, and the reason is this: It’s good for your sperm. Your swimmers develop best at temperatures two to three degrees cooler than the rest of your anatomy, hence the evolution of the unseemly bag of skin and muscle that you lug around all day with your Treo and iPod. Reptiles don’t have to do this, nor do birds, their reproductive organs being discreetly tucked away, like Murphy beds, inside their bodies. But you’re a mammal, and to be a male mammal is to have balls—and to be a human male mammal in the 21st century is to fret about their ability to function.
Witness one guy who was trying, with his wife, to conceive a child. Things weren’t going too well. Months of zinc tablets and loose underwear passed. No embryo. Then the guy discovered that his office was relocating. He would have to schlep to his new workplace from a parking lot that was a 15-minute walk away. That journey would heat up his testicles to a point where he’d be as likely to fertilize an egg as Mel Gibson would be to host a seder. The guy lobbied for a VIP spot. He got the parking place but, sadly, no baby.
This is exactly the type of story being told over and over again at cocktail parties and watercoolers as we speak.
“I was at a drinks thing the other night, and a former coworker said, Everyone, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go knock up my wife,’“ says Andrew Nathan, 34, a group account director at an advertising agency in New York. “I was slightly surprised by it, but I guess I appreciated how direct he was.“
“You talk about fertility with the guys, there’s no doubt about it,“ says Jacob (not his real name), a 35-year-old real-estate executive in New York who recently cut short a night out with buddies to get home to his ovulating wife. But the fact that the subject has become fodder for bar-stool conversation isn’t necessarily a positive development. “The freedom to talk about conception—it puts a couple through a lot,“ Jacob says. “You’re trying to conceive. It’s stressful, and your friends are all Have you made a baby yet?’“
If you’re among those attempting to join BabyBjörn Nation, things are about to get even more stressful. Doctors working in the $3 billion–a–year infertility business are waving some unnerving statistics in the faces of men trying to get their wives pregnant.
“Even guys as young as their late twenties and early thirties should be worried about their fertility,“ says Harry Fisch, director of the Male Reproductive Center at Columbia University Medical Center and author of The Male Biological Clock. According to current statistics, infertility affects around one in six couples. Contrary to the common assumption, in about a third of these cases, the problem lies with the man. Studies over the past 20 years suggest that the quality of semen has declined throughout the industrialized world. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends that sperm banks have a cutoff age of 40 for donors to “minimize the potential hazards of aging.“ And the real kicker? Men over 35 are twice as likely to be infertile as those under 25.
“If your partner is in her mid-thirties and if she’s not pregnant after six months, then you should at least get a semen analysis,“ says Dr. Marc Goldstein, professor and specialist in male reproduction at New York’s Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
Women, with their comparatively complex bodies, have been terrorized by scary information about conception for decades. They are prepared. When the time comes to join the mommy-industrial complex, they’re already packing an ovulation-predictor kit and sperm-friendly intimate moisturizer, and pinning a temperature chart to the fridge where the delivery menus used to be. You, on the other hand, will be blindsided by your inability to sire an heir in the time it takes to order a Meat Lover’s pizza.
“Reproduction has become a sort of consumer choice,“ says Eric Thurnauer, a New York psychotherapist. “And as something becomes more commodified, we feel entitled to have more control over it.“ In other words, because we’re accustomed to being able to pay someone to do something for us, we get worked up when it doesn’t happen instantly.
That delusion is becoming a lot less common of late, thanks to the melodramatic media, a postapocalyptic film starring Clive Owen, and converts who will fill you in on the intricacies of their wife’s oral ovulation detector while you’re waiting for the leg press at the gym. Guys are giving up booze and cigarettes for pumpkin seeds, zinc, and selenium.
“I think a lot of guys look at their lifestyles, because they’re drinking all the time or whatever,“ says Marcus (not his real name), a 33-year-old marketing executive who lives in New York. “I was worried because I used to smoke a lot of pot. It took me and my wife a year before she got pregnant. When she didn’t get pregnant right away, I began to freak out.“
Any fertility doctor will give prospective parents the same advice: Eat healthy, get regular exercise, quit smoking, and drink only in moderation. But most of all he’ll tell you: Relax. Except how can you relax when male infertility has been linked to cell-phone use (it’s been suggested that four hours or more a day may handicap your little guys), cubicle-jockey jobs (those hot balls again), and recreational drugs? That pot you smoked in your twenties? Not good. As for environmental toxins—which the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology has suggested may be responsible for declining sperm quality—that shit is swarming all around you.
Naturally, as during any supposed epidemic, there are contrary voices. Two studies published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility in the late nineties suggested that men actually had higher sperm counts than they did 20 years prior. And advances in medicine such as in vitro fertilization have completely changed the conception landscape. So what are the chances of a guy in his thirties actually being stone-cold unable to have kids?
“Very low,“ says Goldstein, “because if they’re willing to get treated and they’re willing to do everything necessary, we can help almost every couple. Even men who are absolutely zero, in terms of no sperm in their semen, we can help the majority of them.“
In the end, it’s a numbers game: According to estimates, less than 1 percent of men are sterile, so the odds that you’ll be able to deliver the golden shot are strongly in your favor. Just relax, okay?