A field test of the latest at-home male fertility kit.
There are few things in this world as profoundly awkward and mortifying for a guy than trying to ejaculate into a tiny plastic cup.
It seems like it should be such an easy thing to do, but it’s really not. You have to position yourself at unnatural angles, and it feels you’re starring in some horrible German fetish video, which will end up getting posted online as “One Guy One Cup,” and then a video of a bunch of college kids watching it and recoiling in horror and pity (but mostly pity) will go viral, and all I wanted was to find out was if I could still get my wife pregnant.
This isn’t my first time at the plastic cup weiner rodeo, but it’s definitely my first time doing it in the comfort of my own home.
I’m test-driving the new YO Home Sperm Test Kit, which just started shipping to customers in the US earlier this month. For $50, anyone can test the motility of their sperm using only a smartphone.
What’s more, you can take a “live video” of your sperm in action, like a selfie of seminal fluid, which is great because . . . I don’t know. Because guys are visual creatures, and we’re tired of “doctors” giving us “test results” full of “numbers”? We’ll know if our boys can swim, just roll the video!
The big argument for at-home fertility testing isn’t the convenience, or even the tech. It’s that you can get your baby-making fluid checked without leaving the house. As the makers of YO explain in a press release, “That first step of walking into a doctor’s office for testing can be intimidating and embarrassing.” As somebody who’s taken that walk of shame, I couldn’t agree more.
Seven or so years ago, my wife and I were trying to get pregnant, and when we didn’t hit pay dirt after our first few tries, we decided to get tested. My wife absolutely got the worst of it. Her lady parts were prodded and poked with extreme prejudice. Numerous nurses and doctors stuck their forearms inside her like they were kids digging for a prize at the bottom of a cereal box. For my part, all I had to do was jerk off in a room. Easy-peasy!
Not really. It was easy-peasy in theory, but it was also filled with unexpected landmines, beginning when I walked into a fertility clinic, approached a female receptionist, and realized I didn’t know the non-creepy way of announcing, “I’m here to ejaculate in your place of business.”
A nurse led me back to a windowless room, with a leather chair, a small TV attached to a VCR, and a pile of smut mags. She seemed to take it all in stride, but it was probably the most uncomfortable exchange I’d ever had with another human being. I lost any semblance of self-confidence about the English language.
How should I be talking to her and asking questions about the fluids that I was about to leave in this room? Should I describe it as “semen”? That sounded medically correct, but still dirty. “Seed” maybe? Or was that too biblical? “Where shall I spill my seed?” “Load” seemed suitably vague, but possibly too vague. Would it make sense if not accompanied by the prefix “blow my”? What’s left? Baby batter? Jizzle? Man-jam?
The nurse pointed to a small cup on an end table next to the chair. “You can leave your sample in there.”
Ah yes, my “sample.” Of giggle juice.
Not to humble-brag, but I’m pretty good at masturbating. I’ve gotten it down to a science. But trying to ejaculate into a cup while sitting in a chair where potentially hundreds of other guys have jerked off (probably a baker’s dozen just that morning), while pretending you can’t hear the clearly audible whispers of nurses outside the door, gossiping about their weekend plans or where they’re going for lunch, is damn near impossible.
I remember thinking at the time this would be so much easier if I could do it at home, in a controlled environment. I knew the most comfortable and secluded parts of my apartment, where I recognized the exact frequency of hall creaks as somebody was approaching. I knew how to close the curtains just enough to get natural sunlight without sharing too much with the neighbors. I had my own collection of vintage ’80s porn, and watching it was as familiar and uncomplicated as drunk-dialing an ex-girlfriend. What felt like scared and timid release in a clinic—the ejaculatory equivalent of a suburban couple trying to make sense of a city subway map—would’ve been a beautiful release of festive secretions if I could’ve just done it on my home turf.
That first fertility test had a happy ending. (Get it?) My wife got pregnant, we had a son, and I felt pretty confident that I’d never again have to masturbate into a shot glass.
But things change. You get older, and you realize you don’t want any more kids, so one of you needs to get something snipped or tied, and it’s not going to be her. But you really, really, really don’t want to get a vasectomy, because it involves a scalpel plunged into your balls (or so you’ve heard) and if only there was some way of finding out if you still have any ambitious sperm without going through the hassle of returning to that sad, windowless room with the whispering nurses outside. If only!
When my YO kit arrived, I put the box on my desk, hid it discreetly under some bills, and forgot about it. I wasn’t avoiding it, but there just wasn’t a moment during a typical day when the thought popped into my head, “I should masturbate on my phone and find out if I’m no longer a man.”
That’s the real reason guys avoid fertility tests. The only good news is a lack of bad news. It’s not like scratching a lottery ticket. You’ll never get results that make your doctor say, “Wow, we knew you were fertile, but we had no idea how fertile. The lab technicians got a little pregnant just by handling it. Hope your wife is ready for quintuplets, and that’s if she’s on the pill and you’re wearing two condoms.”
Even when you’re using a home test and there’s no middleman, there’s still the lingering fear that you’re going to get that video and your sperm will look like gangster bodies floating in the Chicago River.
Sure, I want that result—for me, it means no vasectomy—but honestly, I don’t really want that result. I want my sperm to be powerful and strong, sufficiently spermy, doing high-kicks and jazz hands in the all-sperm DNA Broadway spectacular.
Mike Hsieh, a urologist at UC San Diego who specializes in male fertility, assures me that I shouldn’t take these tests too seriously. “A single snapshot with these kits doesn’t give me or any men the complete story,” he says. “So a ‘normal’ result might give the guys a false sense of security and they bypass a formal evaluation by a male fertility specialists all together.”
Not only could they not have the full story, he says, but they might be missing vital health red flags, like testicular cancer. “It’s not uncommon that we pick up a couple of new cancers cases per year in men seeking fertility workup,” Hsieh tells me. “A fertility evaluation should include a complete physical exam, blood tests, and two semen analysis.”
I don’t need to tell you that nothing sucks the joy out of an afternoon’s masturbation respite quite like being reminded about ball cancer.
I finally unpack the YO box and take out all the supplies: There’s a collection cup (with an adorable little handle and spout, like you might be serving your spunk with pancakes), liquefying powder, testing slides, a plastic pipette, a clip to attach to my phone, and a little baggie with a note that reads “semen is considered to be a biologically hazardous material.” It’s overwhelming, and I’m already getting performance anxiety.
I watch the instructional video, but that does nothing to calm my nerves. Apparently the liquefying powder will turn your sperm “slightly pink,” which is the exact hue you never want to see in fluid exiting your penis. It had to be pink? Could we maybe try for a color that doesn’t make me think, “Jesus Christ, I came blood?!” Also, the guy in the video is touching his face an awful lot for somebody who just jerked off.
I download the app, which just makes me more paranoid. Although the video assures me that my test results will be “saved in the YO archive until you delete them,” that doesn’t put me at ease. I realize it sounds ridiculous to worry about hackers stealing videos of my sluggish sperm, but you can’t be too safe. I don’t want to end up in some Ashley Madison data dump, but for old man spunk.
It takes a few more days before I can bring myself to try it. It doesn’t go smoothly. I get my “sample” in the cup—that’s all you need to know about that—and manage to add the liquefying powder and turn my spermatozoon pink without having panic attack. But then, I don’t know, things start to unravel.
When I try using the pipette to draw up some of the pink goo and put it on the testing slide, I feel like a teenager in a high school chemistry class. I’m clumsy and self-conscious and aw shit, I spilled everything, this is horrible, why can’t I just pay somebody to do this for me, I have health insurance, am I really that lazy now, what the fuck is wrong with me?
There’s a distinct possibility that at some point I was shouting at my genetic material, “Just stay calm. Don’t die on me, you understand? Don’t you fucking die on me, dammit!”
I get it done. I have no clue how—and you definitely don’t want to use a black light on my kitchen table anytime soon—but I got the splooge on the slide, and got the slide into the YO clip, and got my results. I’m not sharing them with you, because why the hell do you care?
But I will say this. It’s kind of amazing to see video of your sperm under a microscope. I don’t know if it told me anything useful from a fertility perspective, but there are worse ways to waste an afternoon than obsessing over your tiny genetic potentials.
You end up being snidely judgmental about some of them (that dude on the bottom left is the Artie Lange of man chowder) and becoming emotionally attached to others (the guy over there, the little spitfire who can’t stop shuckin’ and jivin’, he would’ve been the one to go to Harvard).
I don’t know if I’d describe it as a better experience than using a fertility clinic. It’s certainly not more convenient. At a clinic, you watch some porn and aim for a cup and you’re done. But with a home test, your orgasm is just the beginning of your responsibilities.
Also, I trust my results at home like I trust a guy who got his minister’s license online to officiate a wedding. But just like that fake wedding, my fake home fertility test at least gave me a wild, weird weekend, and some photos I can’t wait to share with friends the next time the “are you having more kids?” question gets posed.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on VICE Tonic.]