Blazing Saddles

It is illegal for your job to make you sick. Thats mandate by the Occupation Safety and Health Act of 1970. Your job can’t cause injury either, or affect your health in any adverse way. That includes your sexual health. And here Cincinnati, a man who used to study bull semen now spends his days determining whether or not your job is having a negative impact on your love life.

He is Steven Schrader, leader of the Reproductive Health Assessment Team at NIOSH – the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Schrader has a Web site ( that sums up his area of expertise with a nickname–“Dr. Sperm” — and features a cartoon of a cheerful spermatozoa sitting at a computer. But despite Schrader’s carefree mascot, his line of study has serious consequences for some members of the nations labor force. Schrader has looked at workplace hazards that impact the sexual function and fertility of everyone from West Coast cops to Gulf Coast fishermen. While his research techniques: fluid samples, odd devices attached to private parts, detailed questionnaires–are disconcertingly personal, his subjects (and presumably, their significant others) have an abiding appreciation for the work that he does.

With any luck, your chosen profession is probably not awash in genital-damaging toxins. However, if last summer’s sky-high gas prices had you hopping on your old 10-speed to get around, or even if you just take a casual bike ride in the park every now and then, you might want to pay attention to what Dr. Sperm is up to these days.

The NIOSH building, which overlooks Lunken Airport, is a bland brick edifice circa the 1950’s; a faded and rusty placard indicates that it can be used as a fallout shelter in case of nuclear attack. There’s a guard station at the entrance where visitors must sign in, a checkpoint constructed after 9/11. “We’re just a bunch of scientists,” Schrader chuckles when asked about the level of security. “Are terrorists really going to come after us?” His office, with its painted cinder block walls, is as utilitarian as the building. There’s not even a scenic view of the airfield; it faces the hillside. Stacks of scientific papers and journals cover almost every surface, there’s a computer at his desk and one catty-corner over his shoulder, and directly behind him is a large printer that looks like something the lottery commission would use to produce one of those giant novelty checks. “My wife made me promise I wouldn’t bring you to my office,” he says with a smile. “Nobody’s supposed to see how I actually work.”

But the papers, reports, and computers are garden-variety research-scientist stuff. What’s unusual is that scattered amid the clutter are bicycle seats — all kinds of them. They’re here because, in the past few years, Schrader has become an authority on bike saddles and their effect on male genitals. In the past, his work has helped establish a relationship between bike riding and erection problems. And last August, after a study he co-authored appeared in the Journal of Sexual Medicine under the provocative title “Cutting off the Nose to Save the Penis” he emerged as a champion of wider, “noseless” bike seats.

The 57-year-old Schrader, whose affable nature and slightly rumpled look put you in mind of actor Michael Caine, never expected to find himself in an office full of cycling gear. As a doctoral student in reproductive physiology at the University of Missouri, he was focused on animal science and in particular, the quality of bull sperm used in the high-stakes business of cattle breeding. In the early 1980s the scientific community began to realize that the quality of human sperm was an issue, too –and that it might be declining, due in part to the use of chemicals in the workplace. “That area of science really hadn’t been looked at a lot in a clinical way,” Schrader explains. Animal science people…kind of had a leg up on all this. In 1983, Schrader joined the Cincinnati NIOSH office and began studying the effects of modern life on human fertility. And for the most of his career, he has mainly studied the effects of chemical exposure on semen. But he always felt that studying the consequences of physical hazards on sexual function was just as important. And in 2000 he got his chance. A group of workers contacted NIOSH with concerns that their job might be causing impotence. “My life kind of went in a totally different direction,” he says, “because that’s where the science took me.”

In the 1990s, the police department of Long Beach, California, began patrolling the piers by bike rather than squad car. After the bike patrol program had been in place for a while, some officers began to report discomfort located, um, below the equator. They started voicing their concerns in 1998, and in July 2000 Schrader and his NIOSH team went to Southern California to look into the situation.
Schrader began by having the research volunteers answer a brief questionnaire about how things were working down there. He then set about measuring pressure on the officer’s hands and feet and pressure distribution on the bicycle seats they were using. And at night, each man wore a device called a Rigiscan, which logged the number and duration of nocturnal erections.

The study found that 14 of the 15 participating bike officers reported experiencing genital numbness at times during or after riding; that, compared to non-riders, the bike patrol had reduced sexual function; and that the more pressure between the officer and the seat — and the more time the officer spent on the bike — the more his sexual function was impaired. Schrader and his colleagues were convinced that the bike saddles played a role. The culprit, they postulated, was the pressure that the nose of the saddle exerted on the nerves and the blood vessels of the perineum.
About the same time, the so-called “noseless” bike saddles started to appear on the market. These seats look like their traditional counterparts except, as you may have surmised, the nose is trimmed back significantly, so that it’s barely a bump between the riders legs. We said from an anatomical {standpoint}, these looked like they made sense, Schrader says. So he followed up with a more extensive investigation that was conducted among five police department–a study that included gauging the sensitivity of officers’ genital using a device that records how much vibration the man can sense in his privates.

February 2009