New York Magazine

WHY IS EVERYBODY FREAKING OUT ABOUT SPERM COUNTS?

The new PENIS PANIC says a lot more about MALE ANXIETY than fertility.

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 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

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