33 Soc. Probs. 268 (1985-1986)
The Stigma of Involuntary Childlessness

handle is hein.journals/socprob33 and id is 280 raw text is: SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 33, No. 4, April 1986

McMaster University
In this paper, I analyze the stigma associated with involuntary childlessness and compare the
perceptions and behavior of physically infertile women and physically fertile women who are
involuntarily childless. I also consider information management strategies developed to offset
this stigma. These strategies include selective concealment, therapeutic and preventive dis-
closure, medical disclaimers, deviance avowal, and a process of practiced deception. I con-
clude that, although physically infertile women feel more stigmatized, physically fertile women
manage information more actively to protect their husbands from the stigma associated with
sexual dysfunction. Theoretically, I suggest that these women self-label infertility as discredit-
able or stigmatizing apart from any formal or informal response.
The United States and Canada are still strongly pronatalistic societies despite long-
term declines in their birth rates and average family size. Two traditional fertility norms
continue to be widely accepted in North America: (1) all married couples should
reproduce and (2) all married couples should want to reproduce (Veevers, 1980:3, em-
phasis added). It is within this context that Veevers (1972) conceptualizes childless-
ness-whether voluntary or involuntary-as a form of deviant behavior in marriage, a
violation of prevailing norms of acceptable conduct. When cultural norms and values
encourage reproduction and celebrate parenthood, childlessness becomes a potentially
stigmatizing status which can adversely affect the identities and interpersonal relation-
ships of married persons.
Previous sociological investigations have focused on the impact of stigmatization on
couples who are voluntarily childless or childless by choice (see Veevers, 1979, 1980,
1983). However, with only a few exceptions, sociologists have overlooked the exper-
iences of those who are involuntarily childless through subfecundity or infertility (see
Humphrey, 1969; Kirk, 1964; Matthews and Martin Matthews, 1986; Miall, 1984, 1985).
Although infertility has been the subject of demographic, clinical, and autobiographical
works, systematic research is lacking on personal and social reactions to involuntary
childlessness as a deviant status. In this paper, I address this deficit in the sociological
literature by presenting evidence from a study of 71 involuntarily childless women. Fol-
lowing a brief discussion of some crucial analytical issues for sociological research on
involuntary childlessness, I show how these women perceive their own or their spouse's
problem and analyze their strategies for managing its potentially stigmatizing implica-
tions in interaction with others.
Estimates indicate that from one in five (Burgwyn, 1981; Kraft et al., 1980) to one in
10 couples (Mosher, 1982) may be involuntarily childless-that is, infertility affects their
relationship. I Within western nations infertility is usually estimated to occur in 10 to 15
percent of the population (Benet, 1976; Menning, 1975; National Center for Health Sta-
* This is a revision of a paper presented at the 1983 annual meetings of the Canadian Sociology and
Anthropology Association, British Columbia. Thanks to Fred Elkin, Ray Morris, Judith Posner, Bill Shaffir,
and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. The research was supported by grants from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and from the Government of Ontario. Correspondence
to: Department of Sociology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4M4.
1. Unless otherwise noted, the terms infertility and involuntary childlessness are used synonymously.

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