'Hello, I have an appointment. With a cup, I believe,' Made in Chelsea star Ollie Locke announces to the receptionist at a fertility clinic, in the opening sequence of Channel 4's latest reproductive health documentary, Celebrity Save Our Sperm.
It called to mind a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Inside Health – Sperm counts, which started in much the same, explicit way, with the presenter preparing to provide a semen sample for sperm analysis (see BioNews 1184). Unfortunately, while that programme used frankness to bravely broach the challenges faced by many men with fertility problems, Celebrity Save Our Sperm simply refused to miss the opportunity for a crude joke. It had started in much the way it was to go on.
The programme promised to explore whether lifestyle changes could help to boost the sperm counts of three celebrities, comedian Russell Kane, Radio 1 DJ Melvin Odoom, and scripted reality star and gay soon-to-be-dad, Locke. These three men provided thoughtful reflections on their own relationship with their fertility and reasons for wanting children. So thoughtful in fact that it was a shame the points raised were not explored in more detail.
The requisite sperm count reveal to the celebrities, was one of the better-executed parts of the programme. Jonathan Ramsay consultant andrologist and male fertility specialist went over the results of the sperm analysis with each of the men involved. He made clear the distinction between sperm count and sperm motility and also explained the importance of DNA fragmentation information in semen analysis, and what a normal range looks like.
Unfortunately, he also repeated the unchallenged claim that sperm counts have been dropping for decades, made at the beginning of the documentary (see BioNews 1168). While the aforementioned BBC programme had investigated the debate surrounding falling sperm counts in some detail just a few months earlier, the failure of Channel 4 to hold scientific claims made on the show up to the same level of scrutiny, is where this documentary really fell down.
This lack of scientific rigour bled into the next segment where lifestyle changes for the men involved were identified, which they were to stick to for ten weeks, to improve their sperm counts. Why they must commit for ten weeks rather than nine or 11 also remained unclear.
Kane, who was initially diagnosed with a sperm count so low at the beginning of the show that he was told he was functionally infertile, pledges to stop using plastic cups for his coffee. The role of endocrine disruptors in plastic on sperm counts was explained as the reason for this, but with no research-based evidence presented exploring whether or not the interventions suggested were likely to help (see BioNews 1162).
This change, alongside a commitment to stop wearing his signature skinny jeans, consume less caffeine and reduce his use of unlicensed concentrations of hair loss treatment minoxidil, actually resulted in his sperm count and motility doubling. We then learn that Kane had been offered counselling over the infertility diagnosis given to him earlier. This point was left woefully under explored in favour of a segment on testicle massage, purportedly to improve the mens' relationship with their own genitals.
It is perhaps peevish of me, but I couldn't help but compare this segment to Channel 4's recent, critically acclaimed, women's reproductive health programming. Just a few weeks ago Channel 4's Davina McCall's Pill Revolution saw groups of women being encouraged to discuss their experiences accessing healthcare openly and inquisitively, as part of an unequivocally science-led narrative. Yet, here the men are reduced to pulling shocked faces at, well, an excruciating scene that featured prominently in the headlines of TV reviews the following morning.
Similarly disappointing was the decision to conclude the documentary with a mass skinny dip of men, off Brighton Beach. How this would help improve awareness of lifestyle changes that could improve male fertility was not explained. It was just an opportunity for more lewd gags.
I had hoped a Channel 4 programme that pointedly featured a black man, a working-class man and a gay man might have left tired, homophobic tropes alone. Yet in the aforementioned closing scene of Celebrity Save Our Sperm, Locke is reduced to quipping that while it feels odd to be getting his penis out on Brighton Beach, he 'doubts he is the first person to do it'.
Earlier in the programme a clip from Channel 4's Made in Chelsea was played, featuring Locke describing the impact of fertility treatment on his own sense of masculinity and his resulting inability to discuss a recent pregnancy loss by a surrogate with his father. The fact that the scripted reality show Made in Chelsea offered a more status-quo-quashing representation of a gay man than this purportedly awareness-raising documentary did, said a lot about the values, or lack thereof, that appear to have guided the making of this programme.
As somebody old enough to remember the much-panned Sex Education show by Channel 4 in the early noughties, the strained attempts to shock audiences while claiming to make earnest points about a deeply sensitive subject, felt unfortunate. Unnecessarily so, considering recent programming by UK broadcasters on male and female reproductive health has proven informative and considered.
Men do deserve better attitudes and access to accurate reproductive health information, but Channel 4's latest venture fails to progress the cause at all.