science of us

Why Is Everybody Freaking Out About Sperm Counts?

The new penis panic says a lot more about male anxiety than fertility.

Illustration: Bráulio Amado
Illustration: Bráulio Amado
Illustration: Bráulio Amado

There was something wrong, very wrong, with Israeli testicles. A few years ago, an army major named Hagai Levine began to be concerned.

Israeli men were growing tumors on their gonads at a record clip — rates had doubled since the 1980s — and no one knew why. It wasn’t just the tumors; Israeli men were having trouble making babies, too. A few decades earlier, when infertile couples went for treatment at the country’s clinics, roughly one in four were diagnosed with problems stemming from the would-be dads. More recent data showed this proportion had risen to one-half. And while Israel’s population had been growing overall — its fertility rate exceeds that of any other wealthy nation — it was also true that Israelis run through more cycles of in vitro fertilization than any other people in the world, per capita, by a very wide margin.

Levine, at that time the chief epidemiologist for the Israel Defense Forces, already knew these symptoms weren’t found only in Israel. A similar pattern of decline in male reproductive health — more germ-cell cancers, more undescended testicles, more genital malformations — had been identified elsewhere. Reports of dropping sperm counts too had bubbled up into the news all around the world: One major study found that Frenchmen’s counts had fallen by about one-third between 1989 and 2005. “It’s not quite a total collapse, but it is a serious warning,” declared Le Monde under the headline “Chute Spectaculaire de Qualité du Sperme.” In 2008, news media in China took notice of a purported plunge in that nation’s semen quality, too, and a run on Chinese sperm banks; they dubbed the problem jingzi weiji, or “the sperm crisis.” In 2012, India’s health minister warned that male infertility was on the rise there as well, as sperm counts had fallen by two-thirds. Then the panic spread to Malaysia, where men were said to have lost 43 percent of their sperm, perhaps owing to “work stress and other lifestyle pressure including traffic jams.”

These were just the foreshocks, though. In the summer of 2017, when Levine put out his own study of the problem — a grand and global survey of the state of human semen, the biggest ever done — news of Spermageddon would propagate into the U.S. media. That September, Newsweek ran a cover story on the research, “Who’s Killing America’s Sperm?” More recently, the New York Times reported on “The Dawning of Sperm Awareness,” GQ followed up with a nerve-racking résumé of what it calls “the truth behind the shocking drop in sperm counts,” and Vox responded with “Seven Questions About Declining Sperm Counts You Were Too Afraid to Ask.”

This was just the sort of coverage Levine had hoped to get. While on a fellowship at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, working under professor Shanna Swan, he’d built a database of published research on average sperm counts, including numbers drawn from nearly 43,000 samples of ejaculate collected over 40 years in 50 different countries. When he plotted all these figures on a graph, the data formed a broad and speckled band that tilted downward to the right. It was a noisy signal, sure, but the trend was unambiguous: The quality of semen had been dropping over time, with average sperm counts in the West falling off by more than half in 40 years. Human sperm was drying up.

But if this was evidence of a mass unmanning, one could also find some reasons not to flinch. Sperm counts (and concentrations) have at best a weak relationship to male fertility, and even as things stand for Western men today, according to the research — with an average and deflated concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter of ejaculate — we’re not yet in the ballpark of a Children of Men scenario or a reproductive crash. The level is still three times higher than the World Health Organization’s lower bound for normal semen, and the no-more-natural-babies nightmare remains, at the very worst, many years away.

“That’s not the point,” Levine says. His paper argues that one needn’t think of semen only as the substrate of a man’s fertility; it could be just as much a measure of our total health. Levine points to a study of 12,000 men tested for fertility in Texas and California and followed up for years. The ones who had the lowest sperm counts and concentrations — the ones whose semen looked the worst under the microscope — were most likely to have died before the study’s end. In other words: If something in the modern world is killing sperm, then it’s possible that something in the modern world is killing men.

“We are facing possible extinction. This is very clear to me,” he continues. The situation reminds him of a scary moment from his country’s past: the sneak attack by Israel’s neighbors in the fall of 1973. That ambush and the war that followed should have been anticipated — there were signs and signals of the coming conflict everywhere; the king of Jordan had even shared an urgent warning with Israeli leaders — yet the IDF was caught off guard. At the time of the invasion, Levine’s father was serving in the army as an intelligence officer near the border with Syria. After several weeks of fighting, and the deaths of several dozen soldiers in his unit, he replaced the flag of Israel on the top of Mount Hermon. Even in this tumescent act of victory, Levine’s father had been overcome with dread. “He had this terrible, terrible sense that suddenly the world as he knew it had completely changed,” says Levine.

“I don’t think I’ve had this moment,” he continues. “We are not there yet. I hope we will never get there. But I do feel like this intelligence officer who said there are all the signs a war is coming, and no one listened.”

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Here’s a sad and scary spoiler for this article: The trend that Levine and Swan identified isn’t really new — it’s been known about, or at least suspected, for at least a quarter-century, and still we haven’t figured out its cause: technology or climate change; pesticides or plastics (this was the GQ theory); overeating or overmedication; too much masturbation or insufficient exercise. It may be that all these factors have caused sperm counts to drop, or some of them, or none. The resulting danger to humanity could be cataclysmic, or it could be a trifle.

But for certain people — certain men — ambiguity about the sperm decline has only amplified its terror and underscored its implications: The world is changing, and we don’t know how; masculinity is under threat from forces we can’t explain. “This is something that Alex Jones and InfoWars have been talking about for years,” YouTube personality Joe Biggs has said, responding to the sperm-count research. “We’ve seen this feminization really kicking it up a notch over the last ten or so years, where we’ve seen men going from being alpha males to essentially being cucked-out, skinny-jeans–wearing, man-bun–having, feminized little girls … Men are dying, and with that, women don’t want to hook up with feminized men, which means we’re not procreating and the death of Western civilization is at hand.”

In fact, such ideas have swirled around this sort of research ever since it first emerged, back in the early 1990s. The sperm crisis started not with Levine’s paper but with a similar one published 25 years ago by a team of Chicken Littles based in Copenhagen. The Danish group, led by pediatric endocrinologist Niels Skakkebaek, had also done an omnibus review of extant sperm-count research and found a global dwindling from an average of 113 million sperm per milliliter of ejaculate at mid-century to 66 million around the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then, as now, the news arrived at a very tender moment for the human penis. In the early 1990s, a brand-new line of environmental research had begun to shift the focus of concern toward the groin: Whereas in the 1970s and ’80s, environmentalists had mostly worried over cancer-causing chemicals and nuclear waste, they’d lately started looking into hormones. A set of studies pioneered by zoologist Theo Colborn suggested that pesticides and other runoff were soaking wild animals with estrogenic chemicals. Intersex fish were turning up in the vicinity of paper mills; alligators from a polluted lake in Florida had shrunken penises; fertility was dropping among populations of birds, fish, shellfish, and mammals. Colborn and her peers began to ask, What if man-made toxins worked like gender-bending drugs during gestation? What if humankind had launched its own castration?

A few months before Skakkebaek went public with his sperm-count data at a World Health Organization workshop, Colborn and 20 other scientists had gathered to discuss their work at Wingspread — a Frank Lloyd Wright house near the shores of Lake Michigan. There, the scholars coined a phrase for what they deemed to be a novel and pervasive threat to pubic public health: endocrine disruption.

It seemed the major culprit — the No. 1 disrupter — was estrogen. In the “Hypothesis” section of The Lancet, Skakkebaek would lay out the theory with the help of Richard Sharpe, a longtime researcher on male infertility from the University of Edinburgh. For half a century, unborn baby boys and wild animals alike had been exposed to growing concentrations of the hormone from a host of different sources, including synthetic estrogens from the livestock industry, phytoestrogens in foods (especially soy), estrogenlike chemicals from pesticides and plastics, and even contamination of the nation’s drinking water with residue from oral contraceptives. Humans now live in what had been called a “sea of estrogens,” they warned, one that could well be causing genital malformations in the womb and lifelong decrements in semen quality.

This image of a tidal estrogenic threat to man — a drowning force of femininity — would quickly spread. In the fall of ’93, Louis Guillette, the bushy-bearded wildlife endocrinologist in Florida who’d been putting rulers to the phalluses of alligators, testified at a House subcommittee hearing on whether common pesticides might be messing with our hormones. “Every man sitting in this room today is half the man his grandfather was,” he told the members of Congress, referring to the Skakkebaek et al. research. “Are our children going to be half the men we are?” The sperm decline had ended up as the symptom and the source of something broader: a breaking wave of gender conflict that spilled into the science section of the newspaper — a penis panic.

The time was ripe for it. Skakkebaek had first presented his data just days before Anita Hill described her sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas: “He referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal,” she testified. A parade of “men in crisis” moments shortly followed. In early ’92, the aging actor Jack Palance paused during his Oscars speech to do a one-armed push-up onstage and then comment crudely on his capacity for making babies; later on that year, the British writer P. D. James published The Children of Men, which became a best seller in the U.S. in the spring of ’93, not long before an Ecuadoran-born woman named Lorena Bobbit, traumatized by her husband, cut off his dick and tossed it from the window of her car. (“He always have orgasm, and he doesn’t wait for me to have orgasm,” she told police at the time.) Bobbit’s story was the biggest of the year, and she was understood by some to be a hero — a “sociosexual vigilante” and a symbol of resistance to the patriarchy.

In 1996, Colborn and two others published Our Stolen Future, a spiritual sequel to Rachel Carson’s environmental warning Silent Spring (with a forward by Al Gore), laying out the case that we might be “threatening our own fertility” with chemical pollution. At the same time, research on the sperm decline appeared in a pair of major magazine features — one by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker (“Silent Sperm”) and the other by Daniel Pinchbeck in Esquire (“Downward Motility”).

Pinchbeck’s was the more alarmist take, suggesting that, according to the science, we were due for what he called a “Copernican revolution of the male psyche.” The coming sperm decline might well include a gradual shortening of male anatomy, he warned, though his more pressing fear by far was that we faced a short-term risk of total worldwide infertility. (The story quotes a scientist’s advice to invest in cryogenics.) “We’ve got to do something now,” Colborn tells him at one point. It might be suicide to let the sperm decline continue unabated for another 20 years, she said. The sea of estrogens would keep on rising. Masculinity would founder.

There’s an old idea in the field of risk perception that a person’s social status numbs his sense of danger. When a group of researchers in Oregon started making calls in November 1992 asking people to rate the risks posed by several dozen different hazards, they came across a stark result: the “White Male Effect.” No matter what they’d asked about, whether it was cigarettes or suntans, climate change or nuclear waste, irradiated foods or the enlargement of the ozone hole, the pattern in the answers was the same: White men would say the threats were less severe than did any other group. It was like a person’s power and his privilege worked as coolants in his veins.

But in the years since, we’ve tipped into an inverse age of white-male fragility, when those in power feel outnumbered and exposed. The White Male Effect on risk perception now goes the other way, at least in some domains, seeding fears of Spermageddon, for example, in the darkest corners of the internet. “The hormone that makes men men is disappearing from the human world,” warned Daryush Valizadeh, a pickup artist and well-known chaplain of the manosphere, last year. Changes to male reproductive physiology are often blamed, in this milieu, on the “cucking” ideology of third-wave feminism.

The fringe has lots more theories on the sperm decline to share: Valizadeh suspects the problem starts with plastics, but Alex Jones guesses it might result from fluoride in the drinking water, or flu shots, or caesarean births, or the technology behind transgenic “humanzees.” Joe Biggs claims that men in skinny jeans are cutting off the flow of testosterone throughout their bodies, while members of the NoFap community — an online group of anti-masturbators — blame the ubiquity of porn.

And then there is the superseding, totalizing figure of the “soy boy” — at once an insult lobbed at man-bun–having leftists (as an update on the older use of cuck) and a not-quite-jokey theory of hormonal action that claims the phytoestrogens in soy can feminize a person’s body and mind. It isn’t only that we’re eating too much tofu and forgoing dairy milk: “The aim of the Deep Soy State is the subjugation of any masculine element that poses a threat to its power,” wrote P. D. Mangan, the manosphere’s leading fitness guru, in a post last year.

Proper scientific claims are also scattershot. Some researchers have wondered what a Western way of eating means for Western sperm. Others try to link the modern blights of indigestion and infertility and hint that men who take gastric-acid medications — Tums, Zantac, and the like — have fewer, more lethargic sperm. Richard Sharpe now says we might worry about certain common medications often used by pregnant women.

There have been some dire assertions on laptop use and cell phones, too, which could be frying up our sperm (but probably aren’t). And then there is the Sweaty-Balls Hypothesis, that men are overheating their testes, and depressing counts, by spending days in boxer briefs or sitting with their legs bunched up behind a desk. (If that’s the case, then men should all manspread, to help the spread of man.) It’s also been proposed that human sperm are getting cooked to death not because of how we sit or what we wear but rather what we’ve done to our environment. A recent study conducted by economists looked at whether heat waves lead to changes in the birth rate nine or ten months later. Using data from the U.S. going back to 1931, they found this was indeed the case and concluded that the dip resulted from impaired spermatogenesis. You can guess what might happen to our testes when, owing to some catastrophe of global warming, we find ourselves inhabiting perpetual July.

In the meantime, it’s as though the early 1990s — when talk of Spermageddon first appeared in academic journals and the plagues of “date rape” and harassment came to prominence — were being reenacted now in honor of their silver jubilee. The role of Skakkebaek has been taken by Levine and Anita Hill’s by Christine Blasey Ford. In 2018, as in 1992, a surge of female candidates for office has pundits talking up the “Year of the Woman” at the polls and the prospects of a sudden sperm-count drop in Washington. Perhaps it’s true, as Louis Guillette once informed the members of the House, that they will soon become half the men they used to be.

As if to amplify these echoes from the deep, or perhaps to underscore their meaning, a rash of retrospectives has taken on the legacy of Lorena Bobbitt, including one from Jordan Peele, who announced in April that he’s working on a new four-part TV docuseries on her case for Amazon. The original sociosexual vigilante — the penis panic personified — has made a comeback too.

It’s more than just a reenactment, though — maybe “gritty reboot” would be apropos. In just the past 12 months, we’ve been thrust into an unrelenting, highly graphic state of male anxiety. The #MeToo movement started shortly after publication of the latest sperm-count research, in an upheaval and exposure that soon begot a novel genre of self-pity: the victims’ victim’s impact statement, as written in an essay for a highbrow magazine. Now, in the wake of allegations that a Supreme Court nominee once tried to force himself on one acquaintance and waved his penis in another’s face, the nation’s leaders rally to his side. “I can’t imagine the horror of being accused of something like this,” said Senator Bob Corker. “The Democrats are working hard to destroy a wonderful man,” said the president.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find reports of testicular dysgenesis — and even penis-shrinking plastics — rising to the surface once again amid this ugly churn. In August, the senior author on Levine’s analysis, Shanna Swan, sold a Spermageddon book to Scribner with the working title Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Sexual Development, and the Future of the Human Race. That’s not because scientists have made that many shocking, new discoveries about its causes or effects.

Nor can researchers conclude, even now, that there really is a downward trend in male fertility: Levine’s 2017 research bolstered claims about a drop in sperm counts but didn’t render them as certain facts. He’d based his study on a potpourri of data drawn at different times in different places and then considered retroactively, an approach to science that always comes with some uncertainty. “Have sperm counts fallen? We can never prove it for sure,” says Sharpe. “There is always some element of doubt.”

It’s true that birth rates have been plummeting throughout Europe and in North America. This spring, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest numbers for fertility: In 2017, Americans had 3.85 million babies, the fewest in three decades. That’s about six births per 100 women of childbearing age, a record low. We think that well-off Western women are the drivers of this change. They’re the ones who enroll in college, join the workforce, put off getting married, and for other reasons take longer to have kids. But we rarely stop to wonder if some portion of the problem might be men’s.

And when couples struggle to conceive, doctors tend to focus on the aspects of the reproductive process they understand the best. That is to say, they focus on the women. The World Health Organization convened a group of experts to assess the science of male infertility in 2012 and ran headlong into this gap of knowledge. In their summary report, published last year, the members said they were struck by how little useful research — sometimes none at all — had been done on vital questions in the field. Even simple, fundamental facts remain unknown. How many men in the population are infertile? How often are such men the source of problems for infertile couples? No one has a clue.

There hasn’t been dramatic progress in filling in any of these scientific blind spots, however much you may have heard lately about sperm decline. What experts have described as a state of “andrological ignorance” continues even to this day. The inner workings of the scrotum have yet to be mansplained.

*This article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Why Is Everybody Freaking Out About Sperm Counts?