Secrets of the sperm bank

What do we want from a donor? An expert explains the hidden dynamics of the fertility industry

Published September 25, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)


Since the economic downturn, a growing number of Americans have begun making money off their bodies. Since the recession began, the number of aspiring sperm and egg donors has surged dramatically in the United States. In 2009, some sperm banks saw a 15 to 20 percent increase in applicants, while, in 2008, egg agencies reported a similar rise -- including, at one company, a 40 percent increase in wannabe egg providers. At a time when other industries are collapsing, the sex cell business seems to be doing well for itself. But what is it actually selling?

"Sex Cells," a new book by Rene Almeling, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, pulls back the curtain on the egg and sperm market. She looks at the ways our cultural assumptions about gender roles influence not only the egg and sperm donation industry but also the people within it. As it turns out, egg and sperm donors have remarkably different experiences of the process. "Sex Cells" explains how this unique industry shapes the way we think about gender and parenthood.

Salon spoke to Rene Almeling over the phone about the strange rhetoric of the sex cell industry, which donors are most valued and what this says about the American family.

Egg and sperm donors are essentially providing the same thing, so why are they treated differently by sperm banks and egg agencies?

Egg agencies and sperm banks are both in the business of recruiting sellable donors who will attract recipient clients. But the details of how they go about doing this reveal the importance of gendered stereotypes in their day-to-day operations. For example, drawing on the stereotype of women as nurturing caregivers, egg agencies emphasize the plight of infertile couples so that women will want to "help" people by giving the "gift of life." In contrast, sperm banks rarely mention recipients, and they encourage men to think of donation like a job.

One cheeky ad calls on them to "Get paid for what you're already doing!" So the market for sex cells is structured both by traditional economic forces, such as supply and demand, and also by cultural expectations of women and men that are associated with reproduction and the family.

Are there biological explanations for the differences?

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when I talk about comparing egg and sperm donation are biological sex differences. Women who provide eggs must self-inject fertility medications for several weeks before undergoing outpatient surgery. Sperm donors do not face any such physical risks, to say the least. But many people do not realize that sperm banks require men to donate on a regular basis, usually once a week, for at least a year. It costs a lot of money to screen donors, so sperm banks have to make sure that the tiny fraction of men who are accepted as donors will produce enough samples to make the investment worth it.

All that is to say that there are biological differences between women and men and there are technological differences between egg and sperm donation, but neither biology nor technology explains why producing eggs for money is a "gift" and producing sperm for money is a "job."

How does the screening process differ between men and women?

Egg agencies and sperm banks require extensive medical evaluations of all donors, including a family health history that goes back three generations, but that is where the similarity ends. Many of the screening standards are driven by social concerns. Sperm banks usually require that men be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall. Egg agencies don't set height minimums. Most sperm banks require that men be enrolled in college or have a college degree. Egg agencies do not. Most egg agencies require psychological evaluations to assess how women feel about having children out in the world. Sperm banks don’t require that men discuss this possibility with a mental health professional.

But that carries an illogical assumption that the sex of the child will be the same as the sex of the donor. So why might a donor be rejected?

The largest egg agencies in the country receive hundreds of applications every month, so they can afford to be picky. Some differences are driven by medical guidelines to optimize fertility. For example, egg donors must conform to rigorous height and weight ratios, but sperm donors do not. And women over 30 are unlikely to be accepted as donors while sperm donors can donate until they are 40.

Even though most of the egg and sperm donors I interviewed reported that they were motivated by the money they could make, being honest about that would result in a woman's application being thrown in the trash. Egg agencies prefer women who are motivated by altruism, or at least say they are motivated by altruism, because otherwise they violate the cultural framing of egg donation as a gift from one woman to another. Sperm banks are just the opposite: They expect men to be motivated by the money.

Who are the most valuable donors for agencies?

There were really interesting differences by gender and race. Egg agencies and sperm banks post "donor catalogs" on their websites, and they strive for diversity of various kinds -- racial, ethnic, religious, and even donors' hobbies -- to appeal to a diverse recipient population. In all of the donation programs where I did research, staffers complained about the difficulty they had recruiting African-Americans and Asian-Americans, so these donors were considered particularly "valuable." In a given sperm bank, all men are paid the same rate, usually around $75 or $100 per deposit. In contrast, some egg agencies will adjust a donor's compensation based on her personal characteristics, including race. As a result, sometimes African-American and Asian-American egg donors are paid a few thousand dollars more than white donors.

It seems silly that this is referred to as a "donation" when people are getting paid.

Fertility is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. However, the idea of selling body parts makes people very uncomfortable, so the euphemistic language of donation suffuses the market for eggs and sperm. Staffers at egg agencies and sperm banks consistently use this rhetoric, even as they make profits on the sale of sex cells. Egg and sperm donors use it, even as they earn thousands of dollars for their genetic material. And recipients of sex cells use it, even as they purchase eggs and sperm in the hopes of conceiving children.

Do male and female donors react differently to their experience?

Framing paid donation as a gift or a job has profound implications for egg and sperm donors. Egg agencies are constantly thanking women for the wonderful difference they are making in the lives of recipients, so egg donors spoke with a great deal of pride about helping people have children. Some egg donors even described the money they received as a "gift" for the gift they had given. Sperm banks treat men more like employees who are expected to clock in on a regular basis, and sperm donors respond by calling the money "income" or "wages." More importantly, several of the sperm donors said they felt like "assets" or "resources" for the sperm bank, which reveals a sense of self-objectification. I didn't hear that kind of language from the egg donors, even though they are making much more money than sperm donors. These kinds of differences demonstrate the power that fertility agencies have in shaping donors' views. Framing donation as a gift or a job is not just a matter of rhetorical flourish. There are actual effects on how women and men experience the exchange of sex cells for money.

How is sex cell donation changing our ideas about family?

Donors are often asked, "How does it feel to have children running around out there?" The truth is that women and men will answer this question in different ways, but not because biology is dictating their responses. Not only are donors responding to how fertility agencies organize the process of selling sex cells, they are also drawing on a longstanding cultural assumption that the male contribution to reproduction is primary. Sperm donors think of their seed as essential to the child, downplaying the role of the recipients in conceiving, gestating, and rearing the baby. Egg donors do just the opposite, de-emphasizing the egg and pointing to the recipient's nurturance in pregnancy and beyond. So along with all those who rely on reproductive technologies to have children, egg and sperm donors are building on old stereotypes to craft new definitions of motherhood, fatherhood and, ultimately, what it means to be a member of a family.

One of the most interesting aspects of your research is that egg donors do not see themselves as mothers while sperm donors do identify as fathers.

It is interesting because egg and sperm donors each provide half the genetic material needed to create an embryo, so they have the same biological connection to the children who result. Yet sperm donors have a straightforward view of themselves as fathers, while egg donors insist they are not mothers. This is the opposite of what many people would expect, given the greater physical commitment of egg donation and our beliefs about maternal instinct. But it begins to make sense when you take into account the emphasis that egg agencies place on recipients.

Egg donors consider the recipient to be the "real mother," because she is the one who will carry the pregnancy, give birth and raise the child. Women can make this distinction because, thanks to technology, maternity is more easily separated into different parts than paternity. One woman can provide the egg, another can carry the pregnancy and a third (or more) can raise the child. All of these women can lay claim (or not) to the label of "mother." Fatherhood is more often reduced to a cultural equation in which sperm equals dad. Sperm donors rely on just this definition of fatherhood, particularly because they are not asked to think much about the people who use their donations to become parents.

By Mandy Van Deven

MORE FROM Mandy Van Deven

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Nonfiction Pregnancy Sex