Double Check: Soy, sperm rates, and the end of men

By: arron williams&
May 10 2023

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Double Check: Soy, sperm rates, and the end of men

Source: Wikimedia-Commons

“C.S Lewis warned us of a West that would be filled with men without chests, or as we call them ‘Man-boobs.’ We see that prophecy coming true, a physical manifestation of the decline of manhood, virility, and physical health, all of which threaten to doom our civilization,” Tucker Carlson asserts, setting out an apocalyptic vision at the start of his recent docuseries End of Men. Similar sensationalist claims are echoed throughout social media and among misogynistic internet communities such as the “manosphere.” Such spaces believe that masculinity is in decline, civilization is crumbling, and men are becoming feminized. Of specific concern to adherents of these beliefs are two core claims: that sperm count is decreasing, and that male infertility is on the rise.

The claims derive from two studies in the journal Human Reproduction Update. A 2017 study found that the sperm count in Western countries had drastically decreased by 52 percent between 1973 and 2011. Then, a 2022 study by the same research group claimed that the decrease in sperm rate was a global phenomenon, that the rate of decline had doubled each year since 2000, and that sperm counts have reached a decline of 62 percent worldwide. Right-wing media subsequently attached itself to these claims, sowing panic in the media, with Carlson’s 2022 docuseries “End of Men” being one of the more recent examples. 

Annie Kelly, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, believes the docuseries is a surprise shift from what usual right-wing fear-mongering, in that it is a mix of conservatism that acknowledges real concerns about pollution, but also makes assertions about a “soy globalist elite” that wants to feminize the population to keep them pacified.

“I think this is where a lot of the far-right are going now, where they look at genuine problems with environmental pollution like microplastics and their negative impact but attach it to these other ideas," Kelly told Logically Facts. Kelly added, "the mainstream media also has its part to play in these panics. The manosphere aren’t going and digging up these studies themselves most of the time. Most of the time, they're actually responding to a slightly alarmist headline in the mainstream media." 

Male Concerns and the Soy Boy

Fears around a decreasing sperm count and lowered male fertility found their way into online message boards and Twitter discussions about men's health, where influencers such as Andrew Tate and Liver King co-opted genuine and understandable fears of infertility, playing their part in the manosphere. 

The manosphere acts as "an umbrella term that refers to a number of interconnected misogynistic communities. It encompasses a wide range of communities that vary from anti-feminism to explicit violent misogynistic rhetoric," and overlaps with pick-up artist and incel communities, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). 

The manosphere quickly seized upon the claims of low sperm counts, further entangling them with fears of feminization, vegetarianism, and societal decline. It frequently claims that commonly consumed foods in Western nations are lowering testosterone and male fertility. 

More recently, influencer Liver King gained huge popularity through his promotion of a so-called “masculine” diet. His website states that the modern world, through modern diets, environments, and lifestyles, is to blame for infertility. It further contains advice to increase fertility, such as eating uncooked animal organs, excluding cigarettes and alcohol, and increasing sunlight exposure. A significant amount of scientific research does show that changes to diet, lowering alcohol consumption, and having good Vitamin D levels do contribute to healthier lifestyles. However, are male sperm counts and fertility actually in decline? 

According to a 2022 research paper in the BC Medical Journal, a decrease in sperm count is not synonymous with a decline in fertility. The impact on fertility is likely not as severe as has been portrayed, even if sperm counts are decreasing. Crucially, the paper states that research on lowering sperm counts is conflicting, and hindered by methodological limitations, biological variability, and technical inconsistencies. 

Similarly, a 2021 article in the Harvard Gazette suggests claims of a declining sperm count are problematic due to a Eurocentric focus and an imbalance in data for areas outside the "West." The study proposed a more nuanced approach – biovariability – to focus on a wide range of locations and individual conditions to better understand what contributes to changes in sperm count. The Biovariability Hypothesis in the paper states that sperm count fluctuates naturally, and changes are typical for the human species. Therefore, it is difficult to understand the actual extent of sperm count decline, and the impact on fertility is potentially more limited than perceived by the media.

Liver King’s website contains other inconsistencies and scientific misinformation, playing on reactionary fears that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from cell phones along with plant estrogens in food lower fertility and negatively affect male health. Both of these are common points in the manosphere and alt-right groups, aiding in the spread of fear based on misunderstood science and concepts of body purity. Research states the effects of EMFs on fertility require more research and are not fully determined.

Why fear soy?

Fears around plant estrogens – called phytoestrogens – target vegetarian and vegan diets, primarily through a fixation on soy. These claims state that phytoestrogens present in soy lower testosterone in men and cause negative health effects. However, research states the opposite: soy consumption has potential health benefits and does not affect testosterone or estrogen levels in men; hormonal changes only occurred with excessive soy consumption. 

So what does science say could actually cause lowered sperm counts and a rise in infertility? Several different factors could be the cause of a declining sperm count, but none of them link to phytoestrogens, EMFs, or feminization. A 2022 National Geographic article suggests environmental and lifestyle factors, such as exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, smoking, and obesity could be causes, but no one knows for sure. Other research discusses how microplastics pose reproductive health risks and could be responsible for reduced male fertility. 

So why fear soy? The campaign against soy isn't just based on a dislike of vegetarian diets; it ties in with greater fears within the manosphere around emasculation and femininity. As per Carlson’s docuseries, there is a fear that soy feminizes men and is even used by the “elite“’ to pacify men.

The hate for soy is so strong that a now-common piece of internet vernacular, "soy boy," is used as a derogatory term against less muscular or more feminine men. In essence, these anti-soy claims are Western-centric and fixated on a belief of a Western decline. Such narratives also ignore Eastern nations such as Japan – which has the highest soy consumption in the world – yet have not historically had records suggesting that it is a cause of femininity or depression. However, the key to these anti-soy claims is that they represent a fear of losing masculinity and the belief that feminity in men is a weakness. 

If science suggests other factors are to blame for decreasing sperm counts, and soy is part of feminity fears, why do people believe these claims, and why are they popular? Many young men struggle with loneliness and masculinity and readily attach themselves to online communities such as the manosphere. As the internet is an ocean of popularized manosphere content, it’s unsurprising that young men looking for answers turn to misogyny, anti-feminism, and reactionary panics about fertility.

The manosphere has undergone significant changes. Kelly told Logically Facts that influencers now sell their entire lifestyle, which wouldn't have fit into the 2012 manosphere scene. Many comments online express how this lifestyle advice helped them, and it is important not to discredit that. As Kelly says, "It highlights the powerful psychological effect that drastic lifestyle changes do change how people feel and relate to themselves; it's important. But I don't think the advice would be as successful if it didn't feature this cultivated resentment towards the groups that have supposedly made the viewer feel that way, which usually tends to be women." 

The manosphere proclaims society is in freefall due to plummeting sperm rates and infertility. However, science has not yet determined the exact extent of infertility and sperm count decline globally, but points to microplastics and obesity as possible causes. Still, the manosphere latches onto these panic-fuelled narratives to cast blame on vegetarian diets and femininity. While there is an understandable fear of infertility, the manosphere and related communities exploit genuine fears, resulting in misinformation and exaggerated panics. 

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