“Dude, no way.”
My friend looked at me from over the rim of his locally crafted IPA. “Not another genital essay. Why do you publicly obsess about your junk so much?”
“Because we call it junk,” I replied.
It’s more complicated than that, of course, but junk seems like a good place to start. The term means rubbish, refuse, leftover scraps, discarded detritus, the stuff we keep out of sight, smell, and mind. But covering our eyes never makes the monsters under the bed go away. Just look at the planetary junk issues piling up to consume us: microplastics, pollutants, rejected recyclables, an exponentially expanding global waistline of waste (and this is the toxic, cancerous kind of unwanted weight, not simple size — no fat-shaming allowed!).
What I’m saying is, junk is unlovable and unspeakable, dirty and rude. Trash. Taboo.
Oh hello, Perception of Genitals in America.
Because, of course, what my friend meant to ask was why I choose to talk about things of which we aren’t supposed to speak.
What I’m saying is, dysmorphia and dysfunction often have roots in perceptions, not parts.
This isn’t a story of damage or loss. This is a story of potential damage and loss (and of potential itself), and the strange tricks they play on the mind.
I learned to respect sperm at an early age. Not in some toxic, macho, Übermensch way, nor in a fetishy, “precious bodily fluids” way (sorry, General Ripper). I respected it from a sense of gratitude. I am the child of an anonymous sperm-donor father. This meant that I was taught about the life-giving value of semen and sperm years before I experienced my own first ejaculation. I learned as a small child that “making babies” can sometimes require more than merely “a mommy and daddy who love each other very much and then hug real hard.” And as my own body began entering puberty at age ten, I understood that even if I didn’t grow up to have any directly identified kids of my own, the silly looking things between my legs could still serve a noble purpose in the world via reproductive assistance technology.
And then I got a varicocele.
I was in middle school, probably about twelve or thirteen. We had to run miles (and miles and miles) of laps in P.E. each week. Although I wore vaguely supportive cotton briefs, I noticed that after jogging for a few minutes each day, my left testicle would ache, an internal throb in rhythm with my heartbeat that lingered for hours afterward. By this point, I was masturbating [furtively and shamefully, but that’s another story] every night before bed, and still helplessly having wet dreams every morning before waking up, so, at roughly fourteen orgasms each week, my budding reproductive system was in simultaneously hyperactive yet exhausted overdrive.
Therefore, for about a year after the pain in my scrotum started, I simply assumed it was normal, the equivalent adolescent ache of rapidly growing bones and raunchily erupting zits. Eventually, however, I mentioned it to my doctor during a routine physical exam, and after he gave my balls a quick twiddle, he told me I’d developed a varicocele, and that it was normal and there was nothing I should do.
Let’s pause there a moment. Diseases and disorders are, indeed, “normal”: they occur all the time. Health, however, isn’t normal. Health is something we have to work at: it’s a process, a struggle, an accomplishment. But just because a health-threatening condition is common doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable and okay. Racism and sexism are common. They are definitely not okay. “Doing nothing” should never be an appropriate response to normalcy. Never do nothing.
Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t hoping for a bombshell from the doctor, especially not anything involving surgery on my balls. I would have been horrified to have been told I had cancer or needed an amputation, even if my right testicle remained unaffected and fine. But to be told to do nothing, despite a diagnosis? Knowledge didn’t stop the gym-class pain!
And so, although any reasonable person will warn you against the dangers of medical self-education, I went home and did my own research — this was 1997, so “research” still meant printed books. I dug my mom’s copy of the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book off the shelf behind the sofa, and discovered that I had, essentially, varicose veins in my scrotum. The bloodflow was congested along the spermatic cord leading down to my left testicle, and so the harder I exercised (or the more frequently I was sexually active), the more painfully I felt the flooded pulsing of blood through those stifled, sluggish, swollen veins. The Mayo guide described the palpable sensation between one’s fingers as feeling like braided, cooked spaghetti or a “bag of worms,” which is disturbingly accurate. My bag was full of worms, and the doctor didn’t seem to care.
“Do you ever think when the hearse rolls by / that you may be the next to die?”
In reality, varicoceles are a startingly common condition (one resource claims that as many as one in eight men are affected), most frequently manifesting in pubescent boys, almost always via the left testicle (due to the body’s bilateral distribution of arteries and veins), and, in fact, the most typical medical prescription is to do nothing at all, unless they get worse.
But see, “worse” was where my brain got stuck as a thirteen-year-old kid, sitting behind the sofa, my heart pounding in my ears (and protesting in my balls). What if my situation got worse? According to the sages at Mayo, I learned that a varicocele becomes medically problematic when the veins fail too completely, causing testicular atrophy (shrinkage and withering — imagine making a raisin from a grape). But even without that nightmarish endgame, the excessive heat of the bloodflow imbalance can still cause an unshrunken testicle to fail in its automatic temperature control functions, rendering its precious payload of sperm immotile — in other words, resulting in infertility.
And there it was. I had a condition that was common (but not good). My doctor wanted me to do nothing about it because it wasn’t “bad enough” yet, but that course of action could potentially leave me less effective even than my anonymous dad: incapable of fathering any offspring, known to me or not.
Remember the part where this is a common condition — “normal” among adolescents? Shouldn’t that mean we should be doing a better job about educating our kids? Because if there was anything that I, as a fatherless, brotherless teenager was worried about, it was whether or not my genitals “measured up,” both in size and function. I measured my penis religiously, despite not knowing what an average length was — I’d heard some girls joking at summer camp once about whether another boy was a “nine” or a “twelve,” and subsequently took it to heart that anything less than my shoe size was shameful and small. (Thank god for scientific survey results to put that myth to rest!)
But I also sweated over what my varicocele might do to my judgment in the locker room: would the other boys notice the swollen bulge in my sac, or the smaller left testicle? (Oh, foolish youth — as though every other kid in every locker room wasn’t too busy with their own terrors to judge anyone else’s!) But even beyond aesthetic stigmas, I’d never been taught to do a testicular self-exam, or what any abnormal discoveries would mean if I found them. I certainly hadn’t known about varicoceles until mine was labeled. All I was left with was a diagnosis and a head full of fear.
I’m thirty-six now, and, to clarify, I absolutely don’t believe that a person’s worth lies in the byproducts of their reproductive organs. The “adulthood = parenthood” equation is fundamentally flawed and can be deeply damaging. At this point, I don’t have kids, and I don’t want to have kids (of my own, at least). I would have liked to have been a donor like my dad, to honor his legacy and pay the gift of gratitude forward for some other hopeful family, but the rules for commercial donation are significantly stricter these days, and I never lived in one place long enough to donate before I aged out of the prime “recommended youthful vigor” window.
Even without offspring, though, I do like seeing results and leaving a footprint of which I feel proud. I’m a creative spirit. I want to publish “fertile” texts. I want my “normalcy” to be constructive, not destructive. I want to talk about my genitals if it means helping others to better understand theirs. This is my refusal to do nothing.
I still have the varicocele. I wasn’t in enough control of my healthcare as a teenager to get a second opinion on the “do nothing” prescription, but other doctors over the decades have agreed: yes, it’s real, and no, I don’t need to take any immediate action against it. It hasn’t gotten significantly worse — my affected testicle hasn’t withered away completely — but the symptoms also haven’t vanished. The left testicle remains smaller than the right. It still aches if I go jogging, or am aroused for too long, or have more than one or two orgasms per week.
I’ve never taken a fertility test.
I don’t want to be told it’s junk.
© Kent Clark, 2020