Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert’s latest film Stand Up to Infertility contained more jokes about sperm that I’ve ever heard in any hour of television. Any pun on semen you can think of, it was there, from “spaffing this chance up the wall”, to “shooting blanks” to suggesting an awareness campaign called “Spunktober’”.
Rather than a juvenile comedy routine, Gilbert’s jokes were there to bring levity to a serious discussion: “I suffer from a condition called sh*t jizz,” he said, before explaining that he had spent the last six years trying to conceive with his wife Sian, and while she has endometriosis which can make getting pregnant harder, he discovered he had issues too.
Looking into infertility, he discovered that while men account for roughly half of all people struggling to conceive, there was a miniscule amount of information and support for men, compared to how much there was for women. The men Gilbert encountered often felt embarrassed, emasculated, and reluctant to talk about it, feeling totally alone.
Gilbert himself proved his point about the stigma: he looked pained for most of the film, making jokes in almost every sentence to make talking about sperm counts and ejaculate a little easier. At times I did think, “please stop joking about spaff for one moment and listen to the doctor”. But all of the awkwardness, and his own admission that he was mortified by the whole thing, only made it more powerful that he was trying this hard to make life a bit better for everyone else.
Treatment, advice, and support in the fertility industry is geared towards women, Gilbert discovered, from talk of body clocks to the marketing of IVF. One contributor said that his wife had eight years of tests before anyone suggested he get checked out too. Gilbert felt it would be better for both sexes if we stopped thinking of getting pregnant as a solely female concern.
“This culture of men not talking to each other is killing us”
said the poet Benjamin Zephania, who spoke, in a moving exchange, about how alone he felt in knowing he couldn’t have children.
Gilbert also met a group of men in a pub who had fertility issues. As they sat discussing their sperm counts, each looked incredulous and relieved that they were able to do this, and not have their pal move the conversation swiftly on to football.
Gilbert’s film was not only educational – highlighting shocking gender imbalance, and the damaging stigma around men with sperm troubles – his uncomfortable openness about the topic and his own struggle will have been familiar and reassuring to many who fear they have failed in their role as a man. Here, Gilbert’s use of humour as a crutch worked brilliantly, because, as he said to the camera, if you can’t laugh at having to masturbate into a plastic cup in a fertility clinic, what can you laugh at?