Women have historically gotten the short end of the fertility stick. It’s not just that we’ve mostly assumed that they’re to blame for any and all pregnancy roadblocks — even though men are responsible for a third of cases and another third is some combination of factors from both partners. It’s also that we’re so consumed with the notion that it’s her fault, that urologists have noted men don’t even show up in their clinics to be tested for their role in procreation until she’s already undergone expensive IVF treatments and tests, despite that fact that a man’s potential issues could be ruled out quickly for far less.
That bias is also evident in how we talk about female vs. male fertility, down to the informal terminology we use to describe it. Recently, some women began using “barren” again to describe their own fertility challenges, effectively reclaiming the word from its former, dated use throughout history as the ultimate shame tool for the woman who couldn’t bear a child (barren mostly conjures images of a dark, cobwebbed womb whose most exciting activity is an occasional tumbleweed rolling through).
Meanwhile, men who have fertility issues are often portrayed as “shooting blanks” or “firing blanks.”
On its face, it sounds like the better deal. Here’s a phrase that, even if it’s notable for the fact that the bullets contained within are empty and therefore theoretically harmless (they’re not IRL), at least it’s via a gun metaphor, a potent penis stand-in that signifies power. “‘Firing blanks’ is a phrase we use to describe the fact your semen doesn’t contain sperm, but it definitely doesn’t have the same connotations as having say, too few eggs,” Metro U.K. wrote in a piece about women reframing the word barren. “It sounds far more easily fixed — you can just reload and refire.”
But that seriously undercuts the complications contained within “shooting blanks” and all that it confers. For instance, increasing research has found that men suffer enormous shame and question their self-worth when their virility is called into question. In one particular study, infertile men self-reported how they saw themselves, and their word choice was telling: A dud, a failure, defective, not a real man, useless, garbage. Some men said that physicians turned to the phrase “shooting blanks” to make them feel better, but in some instances, that language “left them feeling separate and estranged from their somatic experiences.”
In terms of history, there’s no definitive answer for when we first associated “shooting blanks” with male fertility issues — the medical term for the condition is azoospermia — but if the modern bullet, and therefore, modern bullet cartridge, shows up around 1826, the Old West offers a logical era where hypermasculinity and shooting might intersect. And while the discovery of what’s going on in semen — and even noticing sperm exist and move around — can be pinpointed to 1677, it still takes a couple hundred years before the light bulb of piecing together its critical role in procreation switches on.
“I’m not sure you’re going to find a smoking gun for this analogy (sorry I couldn’t resist),” says Kirk Hazen, a professor of linguistics at West Virginia University. “But the transfer from ‘blank gun shells’ to ‘infertility’ is a pretty straightforward metaphor. So I suspect it was created many times by different folk.”
Hazen notes that for a period of time in the 1930s and 1940s, “shooting blanks” referred to not creating the images you wanted to in photography. “It’s pretty clear that the ‘ineffectual’ figurative meaning came before the sexual meaning,” adds Grant Barrett, lexicographer and linguist who co-hosts NPR’s A Way With Words. Barrett discovered references related to failure more commonly associated with sports in the late 1930s, and sexually in the book Band of Brothers in the late 1950s. In print, the phrase doesn’t start to really circulate until the 1960s, and picks up steam in American usage in the 1980s, according to Hazen’s research.
What is clear about its current usage is that the way we discuss our sense of what men and women bring to the egg-and-sperm meet-cute is deeply entrenched in our sense of what makes someone a man or a woman. And for men, there’s a particularly troubling connection between our obsession with guns and our sense of every tool or weapon as a compensatory stand-in for the all-mighty phallus that feels especially reductive. That’s thanks to Freud, and it’s stuck around, even if it’s largely been dismissed as overly simplistic and misogynistic by Big Psychiatry.
But it’s also particularly inaccurate in the way it conveys the sperm’s activity in relation to the egg’s in ways that also reinforce rigid, limiting gender roles that don’t help men or women facing fertility struggles. “In Emily Martin’s study of the cultural representations of sperm and eggs, she found that everything from scientific representations to children’s books presented sperm as stereotypical males and eggs as stereotypical females,” sociologist Lisa Wade explains. “So, sperm are portrayed as goal-oriented, aware, physically strong and competitive with other sperm, while eggs are portrayed as ‘sitting pretty,’ passively waiting to be wooed.”
“None of this is true, of course,” Wade continues. “To begin with, sperm don’t have brains. If they did, they wouldn’t be male (they only have one chromosome, ideally). It takes many sperm to fertilize an egg, even if only one donates its DNA. And the egg is a chemically active participant in drawing sperm in. The idea that men are ‘shooting blanks’ reflects this scientifically absurd portrayal of a valiant male sperm driving toward its target and a passively unaware egg waiting to be penetrated.”
If there’s any sense of us moving toward a less caricatured notion of what it means to face obstacles to breeding, it’s that the medical understanding of the causes and solutions for men and women aren’t as simplistic as our lay-person’s grasp. Instead, it’s understood as a spectrum of possibilities that involve a number of factors, many of which can be tweakable, treatable and temporary, and as easily as changes in diet or lifestyle.
More largely, when men understand that they can be more involved in fertility issues, they’ll be able to contribute something beyond just the special sauce that helps trigger pregnancy. It will also allow them to embrace “shooting blanks” as proudly as women have embraced “barren.”