The importance of online support forums for men experiencing infertility
This week is National Fertility Awareness Week, and Sperm Comet Ltd, researchers into male infertility and sperm DNA damage, are running a week of blog posts around the subject of male fertility. In today's post, Dr Esmée Hanna, from the Centre for Men's Health, and Professor Brendan Gough, from the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett, share their research insights.
The experience of infertility can be particularly isolating for men. Since getting pregnant is widely seen as something which is natural and ‘easy’ there is something of a stigma around infertility, and perhaps even more for men than women. Even though infertility affects 1 in 6 couples who are trying to conceive, it still remains an aspect of intimate life that remains hidden. Given the personal and unseen nature of fertility struggles, it is perhaps unsurprising that men often feel they have limited options for support. Our research has found that online forums can provide spaces which allow men to express emotion and gain support from other men who understand the realities of not being able to conceive (findings from this research are available here and here.) Online spaces can be really useful for men who are coping with the challenges of fertility. Being able to talk online to other men who ‘get it’ and understand the ups and downs associated with trying to get pregnant was seen as really important on the forums we looked at. In contrast, men described how friends and family were often well meaning but poor sources of comfort or advice.
Forums also offer a level of anonymity, can be accessed anywhere and at any time, and are therefore perhaps quite appealing spaces for men to seek help or share about fertility. The internet has increasingly been used by men to gain support from other men (and women) around a variety of health issues and it seems that for infertility problems, online spaces could be an important way of enabling men to access help and support in ways which feel appropriate to them.
We often forget that men need support for fertility struggles. Men are deeply invested in their relationships and desire to be fathers, and are emotional affected by being unable to become dads. Whilst society still promotes men as needing to be ‘strong’ and stoical, our research shows that men can be vulnerable when faced with infertility and so need support. Online forums can be a good way of helping men to gain this much needed encouragement and to share with a community that understands. Going online for help and advice may not suit every man, but could be a useful resource as part of a broader holistic approach to supporting couples when dealing with fertility issues. Health care services should think much more about how we support men when they are facing infertility so that they are better equipped to cope with this daunting challenge.
Professor Gough is a Critical Social Psychologist and qualitative researcher interested in men and masculinities. He has published many papers on gender identities and relations, mostly in the context of health, lifestyles and well being.