When entrepreneur Jason, 44, was first diagnosed with infertility ten years ago, the pain was indescribable. “I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, but I know what it’s like to lose a child you’ve never had. It was grief, ultimately, but I didn’t realise it was grief because how can you grieve for something that doesn’t exist?
“I’m generally a happy, upbeat guy, but when I found out I was infertile, it sent me into a spiral of depression. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I stared at the floor for about a year.”
Other men seemed uncomfortable when he tried to discuss the infertility tests. “At the time I had a partnership with an agency in Glasgow and there were a lot of blokes there and one of them said to me: ‘You shouldn’t really talk about this stuff’.”
Some were astoundingly insensitive. One of his friends even made an ill-timed joke at the pub, about a ridiculously virile snail who climbed to the top of a tree in the Amazon jungle to impregnate all the female snails. “I wouldn’t speak to him for a long time,” says Jason.
Did he feel less of a ‘man’ as a result of the diagnosis? “I always think of the lion and the pride, who will impregnate all the lionesses to further his line. “I had one job and that was to get my wife pregnant and I couldn’t do that. There’s that idea of spreading your seed. I felt I’d failed as a man. I knew I hadn’t really, but I still felt it.”
He told his partner to leave him. “I said, ‘Just go, just leave,’ because she could go and be with another guy and have everything she wanted. That’s the level of guilt you feel.” She refused.
It was only when he joined the Donor Conception Network, a support network for families with children conceived with donated sperm, eggs or embryos, and started counselling, that the depression gradually lifted. What would he have done with all that bottled up pain and grief, had the strong, silent macho stereotype prevailed?
“I did get to the point where I gave up on myself,” he says. “That was horrible. I felt so alone.”
Suicide remains the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 in the UK. And it seems no man is immune from mental health issues.
This is why Jason wanted to appear in a new film about masculinity, Me and My Penis, which is airing on August 31 at 10pm on Channel 4.
“If there’s one guy that watches the documentary, who is going through the same thing I went through and can not find a way forward, if me talking about it, honestly and openly, helps one person then I’ll be happy.”
Centred on an art project, by activist photographer Ajamu, whose portraits are inspired by the men’s experiences, the film questions the black and white terms in which men are so often portrayed, to reveal something far more multi-faceted and hopeful.
“I’m interested in the shades of grey,” Ajamu tells us. “As men we’re conditioned to bury our vulnerability, so often with disastrous results.”
The companion film to the taboo-busting 100 Vaginas, which aired last year to rave reviews, this new film is equally powerful and exquisitely rendered, with swirling underwater imagery of muscular life models caught in beams of light, recalling artworks by Caravaggio or Rubens; the sensitive subject matter is treated with compassion and a deft lightness of touch.
Both films were directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Jenny Ash.
And yes, as the film’s name suggests, we do see men stripped of their Calvins (though not all were photographed naked), but it is the candid interviews that are the most revealing, as the men discuss issues centred on sexuality and identity, without a shred of defensive machismo.
No subject is off the table, from losing their virginity, to masturbation and erections, to violence, homophobia and abuse.
Marketing consultant, Nick, 54, was photographed in a shirt, repurposed as a straight jacket. Does he think that’s a fair portrayal of masculinity? “I get it yes,” says Nick, who attended the same prep school as Boris Johnson, Ashdown House. “We were brought up with stiff-upper lip ideas and I think it can backfire badly. You can end up bottling things up for years that have no outlets. You need to be sensitive to what’s going on inside you, rather than locking it up the whole time.”
In the film Nick describes some disturbing encounters with a teacher at the boarding school. “If he punished me, he would take me to his room and bend me over his bed. I would hear him breathing over me, but he didn’t touch me. It was creepy for somebody my age. At 7-years-old it was super creepy.”
Other boys at the school, aged 7-12, were physically touched or raped, it later transpired.
It wasn’t until the Jimmy Savile revelations came to light many years later that his peers began to open up about what had gone on. “I think there was a desire to talk before, but Jimmy Savile was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It enabled people to find their voice,” he says.
“If it had been dealt with 40 years ago he [the teacher] would have been locked up and out of the system. Instead there have been other victims. It’s done untold damage to a lot of people, people who potentially had quite bright futures. The school failed in its duty of care in a major way and a lot of people are paying the price with failed marriages, failed careers and failed relationships. The effects of this abuse are massive.”
And when men don’t feel able to talk that compounds it? “Absolutely. We see suicide, drug abuse, life-long depression and breakdowns within the family, because the family don’t understand what’s wrong with them.”
The film also focuses on a former bomb-disposal expert, an ex-policeman who suffered from PTSD, and a boxer, amongst others.
A common thread that runs through it is the pressure to be ‘manly’ and the impact that can have on men’s mental health.
Things are changing, thankfully, says Jason. “The ideal of the silent, strong, archetype still exists, but it is dated and damaging. When I speak to people about this stuff now, men or women, they get, because we all have ‘stuff’ in our lives, we all experience loss and that’s what binds us.
“Do you know what it is?” he says “ It’s about taking the time to say: ‘I get that, I can see how that would upset you.’”
After extensive investigations, fertility treatment with sperm donation was successful and Jason’s wife gave birth to a boy.
“When he was brought out to me, it was everything. Absolutely everything,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “I love him so much. Nothing will compare to having a child.”
His son, Sebastian, now 7, is taught about emotional development at school: “I’m pleased they did a whole term on it,” says Jason. He’s also noticed changes in other family members. “When I think about my dad and how he’s changed. Previously when we went to funerals he would never cry, but now he absolutely sobs and that’s a big deal for him and his generation, to show what a lot of people would call a weakness.”
He believes this kind of taboo, around expressing emotions, is still damaging men. “That’s why we have such a high suicide rate and so many men lost and shutting down. If you have to put a front on every day and you can’t truly be who you are, that’s going to take its toll ultimately.”
The film was made in a pre-Covid world, but its message seems more relevant now than ever, as we face an era of mass unemployment, with new challenges and emotional hardships with our willingness to share these burdens surely defining how we cope.