Shining a light on the world of male infertility, and how clinics bolster and protect men's notions of masculinity

Conceiving Masculinity

Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity

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Liberty Walther Barnes

British Sociological Association's Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness Book Prize, 2015

"Finally, here is an engaged, cogent, and smart investigation of male infertility, positioning men—their stories, bodies, and vulnerabilities—front and center. Barnes’s deft historical exploration into the practitioners, laboratories, technologies, and institutions of male infertility reveals the cultural work of constructing ‘healthy masculinity.’ Conceiving Masculinity is a compelling sociological study capturing the rich textures of men’s emotional crises as genetic fatherhood is threatened, challenged, abandoned, or pursued. Previously invisible, male factor infertility is brought into sharp focus through Barnes’s research—her work encourages us to (re)conceive masculinity as it evolves and shifts."
Lisa Jean Moore, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York, and author of Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid

In Conceiving Masculinity, Liberty Walther Barnes puts the world of male infertility under the microscope to examine how culturally pervasive notions of gender shape our understanding of disease, and how disease impacts our personal ideas about gender.

Taking readers inside male infertility clinics, and interviewing doctors and couples dealing with male infertility, Barnes provides a rich account of the social aspects of the confusing and frustrating diagnosis of infertility. She explains why men resist a stigmatizing label like "infertile," and how men with poor fertility redefine for themselves what it means to be manly and masculine in a society that prizes male virility. Conceiving Masculinity also details how and why men embrace medical technologies and treatment for infertility.

Broaching a socially taboo topic, Barnes emphasizes that infertility is not just a women's issue. She shows how gender and disease are socially constructed within social institutions and by individuals.



Read Chapter 1 (pdf).



"Scholars researching reproduction have focused almost exclusively on women, implicitly reinforcing the cultural assumption that reproduction is a female concern. Thus, Barnes’s ethnographic account of male infertility is a welcome addition to this growing field. An excellent writer, Barnes does an outstanding job of using the example of male infertility to demonstrate how gender works in American social institutions."
Arthur L. Greil, Professor of Sociology at Alfred University and author of Not Yet Pregnant: Infertile Couples in Contemporary America

"Conceiving Masculinity vividly documents not only the gendering of infertility but also the cultural and institutional practices that maintain infertility as feminized. Through her conversations with men who have experienced infertility and her documentation of the history of the disorder, Barnes convincingly shows how both medical professionals and male patients do gender through the infertility process. As she explores the daily embodied practices that are part of the infertility process, Barnes exposes how the treatment relies on—and reinforces—problematic norms and expectations about masculinity that may prevent doctors and researchers from uncovering more far-reaching solutions."
C. J. Pascoe, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School

"Barnes presents a compassionate and substantive analysis of male infertility.... Barnes weaves a bounty of analytic threads into a compelling ethnography whose interviews with infertile men and their (mostly male) doctors make the story come richly alive in this overdue study."
Publishers Weekly

"[Barnes] states convincingly that in the 21st century, women still tend to be blamed more often than men for the failure to conceive, because an infertile man challenges the prevailing notion that reproductive prowess is a key component of masculinity. The historical analysis of the development of reproductive medicine provides interesting background information, and the interviews with employees of fertility clinics and with infertile men and their female partners provide insight into the experiences of infertility.... Barnes shows how gender can be defined and then redefined in order to preserve commonly held values about masculinity and femininity. Summing Up: Recommended."

"In Conceiving Masculinity, Barnes deftly analyzes the bind that male infertility doctors encounter: they need to debunk the stereotype that infertility is a woman’s issue in order to attract clients and advance their profession, yet they feel compelled to protect the masculinity of their clients in face-to-face interaction.... Conceiving Masculinity is an accessible read that could inform students in gender, health, and sexuality courses. Barnes’ attention to the interactions between levels of gender results in an intriguing analysis of how gender is reconstructed even in context where it is professionally beneficial to challenge cultural assumptions about men and reproduction.."
Gender & Society

"Barnes' succeeds in providing a vivid account of the so far under researched experiences of men in the infertility encounter as couples are confronted with choices (or lack thereof). Conceiving Masculinity is a very readable story, offering a growing scholarship on the history of infertility and current insights into a gendered order of medical encounters with the body and disease."
Social History of Medicine

"Barnes explore[s] the experiences of American men diagnosed as infertile…. [She] is attentive to cultural, institutional, and individual perspectives. She describes a powerful association between masculinity and male fertility at each level of analysis…. [T]his book…has much to offer. Barnes had the fortitude to study a population that has been difficult to locate, let alone research extensively. She is skilled at asking questions that yield rich data, and her writing style is very accessible. Moreover, Barnes balances the right amount of empathy and analysis. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in examining connections between gender and medicine."
American Journal of Sociology

"Liberty Walther Barnes is part of a vanguard of reproduction scholars whose work is increasingly calling attention to men’s bodies and experiences in order to shed greater light on the cultural dimensions of reproduction, reproductive science, and reproductive medicine.... Barnes makes an important contribution in this arena.... The fact that Barnes amassed so much rich data is a feat in and of itself. It is indeed hard to find infertile men to study. Barnes’s book elucidates the historical, cultural, and gendered details as to why exactly men remain obscured in the landscape of infertility medicine.... Barnes’s book is an important step in acknowledging and analyzing the connection between men’s bodies, identity, and reproductive concerns.... [A]n engaging read."
Contemporary Sociology

"With much of the literature on infertility focusing on women, Liberty Walther Barnes’s new book, Conceiving Masculinity is an important addition because it provides an in-depth analysis of the personal and institutional understandings and experiences of male infertility.... Conceiving Masculinity fills a gap in the infertility literature and is relevant for scholars in the fields of gender, sexuality, bioethics, and health. Though thorough and grounded in theory, Barnes’s book is accessible and could also be an interesting and useful read for students, health care providers, and people facing infertility."
International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics

"Barnes provides an illuminating insight into a field of research—male factor infertility—which provides a welcome addition to an expanding body of knowledge in the sociological and medical sciences about men and reproduction.... This ethnographic account, based in an American setting, delves into the intricacies of gender and infertility, and explores the experience of infertility, and its relationship with masculinity, in a largely under-represented group. This book, offering a sociological perspective but spanning a number of cross-disciplinary questions, will appeal to both students and scholars alike, and provides a succinct introduction and valuable contribution for those interested in health, gender, and reproduction.... Overall Conceiving Masculinity demonstrates the complexities of male infertility and its multifaceted relationship to the body, gender, masculinity reproductive medicine, and reproductive technologies in an accessible and sensitive format. A very interesting and enlightening read."
Men and Masculinities




1. Preconceived Notions
2. Seminal Work
3. Doctors Doing Gender
4. Just a Medical Condition
5. Taking Control
6. The Politics of Reproduction

Appendix A: Research Participant List
Appendix B: Interview Guide



About the Author(s)

Liberty Walther Barnes is a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

Subject Categories

Health and Health Policy
Gender Studies



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