Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction. By Cynthia R. Daniels. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 260 pp. No price on book but publisher website gives price as $40.00. www.oup.com
Rutgers University Associate Professor Political Science Cynthia R. Daniels has published Exposing Men; The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction, a book examining dangers to menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reproductive health and the relationship to gender justice. Daniels, as a self-proclaimed feminist and an outsider to the menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rights movement, thereby provides an invaluable glimpse of how sympathetic observers view such explosive yet often neglected issues. The author argues that ideals of masculinity Ã¢â‚¬Å“are double-edged, for while they perpetuate assumptions about the superior strength of the male body, they lead to a profound neglect of male reproductive health and a distorted view of menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s relationship to human reproduction.Ã¢â‚¬Â
She may call herself a feminist, but Daniels Ã¢â‚¬Å“getsÃ¢â‚¬Â menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s issues. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is it privilege that we neglect ailments like male infertility in the interest of maintaining illusions of male virility? Is it privilege to spend the bulk of a lifetime in dreary or dangerous work, separated from their children, in order to perpetuate ideals of men as providers? Is it privilege to man the front lines of war while women provide primary care for children? Is it privilege to ignore the hazards of both work and war to the male reproductive system to maintain the illusion of men as invulnerable?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Daniels adroitly points to four interrelated assumptions regarding menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s relationship to human reproduction: 1) men are assumed to be secondary in biological reproduction; 2) men are assumed to be less vulnerable to reproductive harm than women; 3) men are assumed to be virile; and 4) men are assumed to be relatively distant from the health problems of children they father. The bulk of her book comprises four chapters, each examining one of these assumptions in detail.
Regarding the presumption of menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s secondary reproductive status, Daniels shows us that Ã¢â‚¬Å“cultural beliefs cast semen, as well as the male reproductive system, as Ã¢â‚¬ËœinappropriateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ for scientific investigation and, as a result, the male reproductive body remained relatively understudied.Ã¢â‚¬Â The author demonstrates that even for research addressing the period prior to conception, it is often considered less important to study male infertility or to treat male reproductive disorders than it is to treat or study women. Ã¢â‚¬Å“At conception, it is often assumed that the genetic contribution of men is less important in causing miscarriage or in transmitting genetic disorders to the fetusÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. The disproportionate attention to women, while sometimes justified, often unjustly minimizes the role of men.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The author does not reach any simple conclusions as to how this has played out, for there are no easy answers. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The secondary biological role of men in reproductionÃ¢â‚¬â€the first assumption of reproductive masculinityÃ¢â‚¬â€has both privileged and burdened men. It has privileged men by casting them as less responsible for concerns of reproduction, less vulnerable to the harms of the outside world, and more distant from the children they produce. But at the same time, it has led to a distorted view of men in human reproduction, a neglect of the male reproductive system, and a devaluation of the male role in producing healthy children.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Among the sad facts regarding menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reproductive health that Daniels recounts in her third chapter (on the assumption that men are less vulnerable to reproductive harm) are dropping sperm counts, a shocking fourfold increase in testicular cancer rates, and a doubling of birth defects in baby boys. Later Daniels shows us why rising testicular cancer rates and falling sperm counts are likely to be causally connected. Daniels depressingly but convincingly sets forth the serious havoc wreaked on male reproductive capabilities by such toxins as dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Typically, no one cause can be pinpointed for a given problem. Among possible contributing factors to menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reproductive problems are plastic diapers, increased rates of sexual activity, use of jockey underwear (which keeps testicles at a higher temperature that is harmful to sperm counts), greater male obesity, poorer diet, increased drug and alcohol use, the proliferation of sedentary jobs, maternal drug use during pregnancy, use of hard bicycle seats (which, like jockey underwear, can contribute to reduced sperm counts), and, as some have suggested, the success of feminism and the decline of war. Later the author delves into the estrogen-mimicking qualities of certain plastics that are widely used (including in plastic water bottles), which to me is one of the most alarming aspects of this whole set of problems.
One of DanielsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ most impressive abilities is her well-honed knack for deft analysis not only of the cold facts but of the processes and biases, both conscious and unconscious, which underlie how society addresses such problems.
Toward the end of the chapter, she provides a particular trenchant analysis of events happening at multiple levels: Ã¢â‚¬Å“[E]vidence that threats to disrupt presumptions of masculinity was met with highly charged responses of panic and denial. . . . Assumptions of male risk potentially throw into question not just gender but all of social order, producing predictions of global doom. . . . Evidence so loaded with meaning for broader understandings of masculinity. . . elicited reactions of social denialÃ¢â‚¬â€subjecting evidence of risk to inordinately high standards of scientific proof.Ã¢â‚¬Â (italics in original)
The fourth chapter, addressing menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s presumptive virility, sets forth facts of which I was quite unaware, for example, that sperm banks in the United States are virtually unregulated, and are not even required to register with the federal government before opening, except for certain basic standards applicable to any medical laboratory.
Again, the authorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s multilevel grip on what is really going on is admirable: Ã¢â‚¬Å“When scientific or medical evidence conflicts with ideals of reproductive masculinity by suggesting the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of men, such evidence is often met with a great deal of social and political resistance. In terms of the presumption of male virility, this resistance has come in the form of a denial of male infertilityÃ¢â‚¬Â¦Ã¢â‚¬Â Sadly, Daniels shows us, such concealment of the issue also operates on the personal level. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Male infertility was, and remains, an embarrassment for most menÃ¢â‚¬â€a source of personal shame.Ã¢â‚¬Â The authorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sharp eye notes the commodification of men inherent in the proliferation of sperm banks.
The next chapter addresses menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s presumptive distance from their childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s health problems. One of the saddest aspects is that researchers such as Gladys Friedler wishing to focus on male reproductive issues face a number of barriers not applicable to scientists studying female reproduction: they are often discouraged from pursuing these topics, publication of their essays is difficult, and research funding is scarce. The very studies that most need to be performed therefore die on the vine. Ã¢â‚¬Å“[B]ecause of methodological problems, the absence of dramatic effects, and continuing disbelief about the nature of the male mechanism, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthere is no way any agency is going to fund another epidemiological study on male occupational exposure and childhood cancer.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ Ã¢â‚¬ËœGoodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ studies would be both too time-consuming and too expensive for an area of research where the biological mechanisms still appear Ã¢â‚¬ËœimplausibleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ to many funders.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The author recounts some gripping, sad stories I had never heard before of workers at toxic chemical plants and their struggles to determine why they were unable to father children and to obtain protection from the reproductive hazards of their jobs. In 1978, five women underwent surgical sterilization in order to retain their higher-paying jobs at a chemical plant that barred women of childbearing age from certain hazardous positions. (In 1991, in the Johnson Controls case, the Supreme Court later outlawed such restrictions.) Daniels retells, with a focus on the reproductive health of men and the birth disorders of their children, the sad stories of veterans of the Vietnam War suffering from Agent Orange exposure and of the numerous problems to which Gulf War veterans fell prey.
Daniels devotes considerable time to exploring the mediaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s highly discriminatory focus on the impacts of maternal behavior on children while ignoring the often devastating impact menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s drug use can have on their kids. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ã¢â‚¬â„¢If we had a male thalidomide, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d see some action.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ . . . Here, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not just the weakness of the evidence but the gendered lens through which this evidence is screened that makes the evidence more difficult to see.Ã¢â‚¬Â
I found very little in this book on which to fault the author. I was a bit dismayed by the naivety visible in her question, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Where were the menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s organizations demanding attention to these issues [of male reproductive health] and regulatory action by the stateÃ¢â‚¬Â¦?Ã¢â‚¬Â As a feminist, she is clearly accustomed to the many millions of dollars available to fund womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s causes and not aware of the sad reality confronted by menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s organizations, whose very existence is discouraged by the feminist political climate and the absence of money and resources to support them.
Her final chapter examines the implications of the previously discussed issues for social change and positive transformation of gender relations. Daniels evidences a level of empathy for menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s issues, not to mention a facility at distilling general conclusions from specific challenges, which is little short of awe-inspiring: Ã¢â‚¬Å“We live in an age full of paradoxes and contradictions for men. While we expect men to be more sensitive to human needs, we champion the ideal of men as invincible soldiers. While we expect men to be the protectors of both nation and home, we subject them to toxic threats at work and war and fail to address their health needs when they suffer as a result. We expect men to be more involved in the care of children, while we belittle their biological contribution to human reproduction with arguments that testosterone makes men more aggressive and less sensitive to the needs of children.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The author spells out her somewhat astonishing take-home conclusion that Ã¢â‚¬Å“evidence suggests that men are even more at risk than women.Ã¢â‚¬Â Yet Daniels does not leave us without possible solutions: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The way out requires transformingÃ¢â‚¬â€at a most fundamental levelÃ¢â‚¬â€the ideals of masculinity that both reward and burden men. This necessitates not just greater public attention to the reproductive health needs of men. It requires, more fundamentally, a transformation of the social system that makes, particularly for men, neediness, vulnerability, dependence on others, and deep connections to children a source of denigration and shame. At this historical moment, there are both a profound need for and resistance to this transformation.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The book ends with a superlative conclusion that verges on the symphonic in its beautifully expressed, visionary message. As has often been true throughout this review, I can do no better than to end with the authorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own words: Ã¢â‚¬Å“A more just politics of reproduction would recognize the specific biological differences between the sexes while affirming menÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s common humanity. . . . A more just social system requires that we rethink the polarization of human traits that we have so long projected onto male and female bodies. . . . Transforming reproductive masculinity means seeing men and women as equally essential to human reproduction, equally vulnerable to the hazards and threats of the world, equally moved by human tragedy and sorrow, and equally capable of being the protectors of the nation and the species.Ã¢â‚¬Â Three cheers, no, make that four! A truly sensational book! Bravo!