Long Reads

The big problem with those blowjob and miscarriage headlines

Some media outlets have been gleefully reporting research appearing to suggest women experiencing fertility problems should give their male partners oral sex more often. But these articles aren’t telling the whole story – and the repercussions could be damaging.

As a woman, there are several ways to erroneously blame yourself for miscarriage. Frankly, I’m bored of hearing and thinking about them, but I’ll list a few for the unfamiliar. How about lifting something a bit heavy, eating the wrong thing, drinking the wrong thing, trying again too soon, waiting too long to try again, waiting too long to try at all, working too hard, being too excited, not being excited enough. You get the picture.

But a woman’s guilt is never done, so let’s add another to that miserable load: not giving your male partner enough blowjobs. Or, specifically, not seeing those blowjobs through to completion with a swallow.

Recently, many news outlets have published stories asserting that swallowing semen could reduce women’s chances of recurrent miscarriage. Here’s one typical headline: “Swallowing your partner’s semen could help you have a baby, scientists claim”. That’s that sorted then. Except… no. Not really.

The stories are based on a newly published study which sought to investigate how exposure to paternal antigens via seminal fluid might (remember this word, it’s a somewhat key one) affect the maternal immune system, specifically when ingested orally. Broadly, researchers wanted to find out if there was an association between swallowing sperm more often and miscarriage.

I must assure you that no, I am not instantly dismissive of this study because it involves blowjobs and obviously all card-carrying feminists reject those out of hand (mouth). If there are genuine grounds for further research, I say have at it. Miscarriage needs all the investigation it can get, especially of the sort that acknowledges men have something to do with the whole shebang. What I find crass, irresponsible and possibly damaging are the various editorial flourishes in the reporting, which both belittle the subject matter and, in some cases, completely misrepresent the findings.

One article briefly acknowledged the study might not mean all women with fertility problems should instantly drop to their knees, by including the immortal line “However, before men get too excited…” Because truly, what could be more arousing than the thought you could invoke your potentially devastating fertility issues for some head? What a turn-on to know that if your partner doesn’t feel like swallowing your ejaculate tonight, you can always remind her of the babies you’ve both lost. Sexy. (The article was illustrated with a stock photo of a woman licking a banana. Such a laugh, this baby loss stuff!)

Another publication ended a piece by (eventually) addressing the fact the research doesn’t actually yet prove anything, with the glorious closer: “For now the plea that blowjobs are one part of a healthy sex life is still your best shot at getting one.” Bad luck, guys. Fingers crossed, your best shot might soon be telling your partner that blow jobs will help her avoid recurrent miscarriage! Yay!

At a time when we’re only just beginning to recognise the severe psychological pain that pregnancy loss can cause, such as symptoms of PTSD and – like so many issues concerning the female body – debilitating feelings of guilt, shame and secrecy, this jokey approach to the research is wholly depressing.

It’s important to state what many of these articles don’t effectively convey: this research categorically did not prove that having regular oral sex improves the chances of a healthy pregnancy or reduces the risk of recurrent miscarriage.

Let’s be clear on what this research did involve. The team – obstetricians from Leiden University Medical Centre, Netherlands – did not instruct a huge number of couples to engage in oral sex, check they were seeing it through to the end and then monitor how swallowing semen affected fertility with a series of controlled tests taking into account multiple other possible affecting factors over several years. Instead, they looked at the pregnancy history of a small group of women alongside questionnaires those women filled out about their sex lives.

Essentially, they hypothesized that the 97 women who’d had recurrent miscarriages had less oral sex than the 137 women with uneventful pregnancies. And yes, more women in the second group said they gave blowjobs than women in the first group.

What they found was an association, not a causation. It lines up with the team’s idea that swallowing semen affects fertility, but in theory correlation could also be found for something else if they’d looked for it: brown hair or body piercings or a taste for cheese sandwiches, say. The data doesn’t prove that one thing definitely causes another, especially with a small group and numerous other factors. Taken with the suggestions of previous studies, it’s simply a call for more research into the matter.

Yet the mass of headlines and statements don’t exactly strive to point out the pinch of salt with which anyone should take these findings, or even use the word ‘association’. Yes, they scatter a few ‘coulds’ and ‘mights’. But who notices those when you’ve got headlines promoting blowjob consistency (“Regularly swallowing your partner’s semen could protect against miscarriage, researchers claim”) as a way of reducing the risk of something horrible (“Swallowing semen could help prevent recurrent miscarriages”)?

One media outlet skipped the coulds, mights and maybes entirely and went straight in with cold, hard ‘fact’ (apparently, they know more than the researchers themselves). “Scientists reveal swallowing sperm is surprising way to lower risk of miscarriage”, announced the headline. The article went on to unequivocally state: “Researchers have revealed that swallowing semen strengthens a pregnant woman’s immune system so a baby is more likely to grow healthily.”

This research does not apply to everyone who wants to start a family. It barely applies to the people it is aimed at. But the message we end up with is clear: better get swallowing just in case, eh?

To not properly explain how seriously to take these findings when dealing with such a painful issue is irresponsible. To give the impression a few blowjobs could help anyone experiencing recurrent miscarriage (or, in the case of “swallowing your partner’s semen could help you have a baby”, literally anyone who wants to get pregnant) is damaging. To treat what for many is one of the most devastating experiences of their lives as little more than a way of persuading someone into a sex act is ridiculous. 

These words add to a heavy female burden of guilt and shame. They give false hope in magic cures with scant evidence. They oversimplify a complicated and – at least at this point in time – often unexplainable health problem, a serious issue that already suffers from widespread misunderstanding and the resulting flippancy.

Jesus Christ, guys. Miscarriage is hard enough.

Image: Getty

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