Inside the world of unregulated sperm banks, where people meet on Facebook to have babies

The new documentary "Spermworld" explores the underground phenomenon shaking up fertility access

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 29, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Spermworld (Courtesy of FX Networks)
Spermworld (Courtesy of FX Networks)

In February, many in vitro fertilization clinics in the state of Alabama paused some of their services after the state’s supreme court said that frozen embryos were “extrauterine children.” It was the first time the state gave personhood rights to an embryo outside of a female’s uterus.

For many in the middle of this physically and emotionally difficult process that is IVF, the move was devastating and crushing. The fact that one man’s ruling could affect so many people’s decisions on trying to conceive has been perceived by medical experts as a massive violation of peoples' right to bodily autonomy. Some are concerned Iowa could follow in Alabama's footsteps, after House Republicans in the state recently introduced a similar bill.

But even before these states made such moves, IVF and other forms of infertility treatment weren't always accessible to many people. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine released an ethics committee report in 2021 that highlighted "In the United States, as in many other countries, economic, racial, ethnic, geographic and other disparities affect both access to fertility treatments and treatment outcomes."

Perhaps it’s the fact that the process of conceiving and having a child in America is so intricately tied to politics and ideology explains why more people are taking matters into their own hands by turning to the world of private sperm donors in Facebook groups. 

First reported by journalist Nellie Bowles in The New York Times, there’s an entire ecosystem where intended parents are joining Facebook groups like Sperm Donation USA to find private sperm donors. In an industry where privacy is usually valued, and motivations are driven by profit, this so-called sperm world defies systemic and financial barriers. Instead of having to go to a sperm bank and browse through a catalog of anonymous donors, women are able to meet potential donors in person and sometimes form intimate relationships. Men frequently don’t charge the costs of a sperm bank, making the process more accessible to those who can’t afford the traditional sperm-bank route.

But like any other unregulated, underground market, there can be a dark side to it. In the feature-length documentary "Spermworld" (which premieres Friday, March 29 at 9pm ET on FX and hits Hulu the next day) follows intimate encounters between donors and recipients by honestly, and unbiasedly, narrowing in on participants’ intentions.

What motivates people to swap genetic material and try to conceive in such an unconventional, and sometimes risky, way? Salon spoke with director Lance Oppenheim and executive producer Kathleen Lingo to learn more. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did this investigation go from an article to this documentary?

Lance: Kathleen introduced me to Nellie Bowles, who is amazing. When she told me about this universe where people were meeting outside of sperm banks to have children, and were meeting on Facebook, I was amazed immediately. But also I really loved how Nellie was going about this story, which was kind of more essayistic.

"It’s this kind of feeling that everyone in the group wants to be seen as valuable and generous and worthy of replication."

The questions that I think both of us were thinking about are why are people doing this? Why are men giving away their sperm, oftentimes for free, on these Facebook groups? And why would hopeful parents choose to go about having a child this way? That was the starting point. After I talked with Nellie, I went to Kathleen and said, "I think there's a movie in this world."

The entire time I was watching the documentary, I was asking myself: ‘How did they get people in the film to be so open?’ Trying to conceive is usually such a private affair, let alone meeting donors via a Facebook group. 

Lance: I ask the same question to myself all the time, and not just with this film, but for movies and documentaries in general. What motivates one to be a part of it? And I think on a probably pretty fundamental level, it's this desire to be seen. And I think the same reasons that maybe drew people to the Facebook groups in the first place, where they're advertising themselves. The men are kind of posting pictures of themselves, talking about how they used to be chess champions in middle school. It’s this kind of feeling that everyone in the group wants to be seen as valuable and generous and worthy of replication.

SpermworldSpermworld (Courtesy of FX Networks)

There were plenty of people when they were doing our initial casting exercises that wanted to remain private. But I think the folks that we met, they felt like they didn't really have an outlet to express themselves. I think in a lot of ways, in some cases, the discomfort of meeting a stranger for the first time and not knowing what their intentions are, but knowing that there's sort of a third party that's present for a lot of those encounters, I think took the edge off for some.

But for others, as you see in the movie, it didn’t. The process to make these movies takes us years to do. That’s because the people in the film, we need to wait until things are really happening in their lives, but also we really need to get to know each other. They need to know me and trust me as much as I need to know them and trust them. The kind of amalgamation, that feeling, I think leads to the kind of portrait that we're able to make here which is very intimate — uncomfortably intimate at times — and stylized. 

Definitely uncomfortably intimate at times. I want to talk more about the intention driving the donors to this universe. It seems like many people do this for free. There’s an altruistic component to it for some donors. It might even be an “addiction,” as it is alluded to with Ari, who is a "super donor." But is there a financial component to this too? If so, why didn’t you focus on that in the documentary?

Kathleen: The only donor who gets paid is Tyree. And he doesn't always get paid. He’s also a mechanic, and his wife has a job, so they don't support themselves doing this. And then Steve, this didn't end up being shown in the movie, but he does travel quite a bit and the recipients will cover his travel expenses. But ultimately, in all the people we talked to, it never seemed like their primary motivation was money. I think it's a much more complicated psychological drive with a full spectrum of intentions — some not as pure as others about why they do this.

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Lance: I think that's mainly one of the reasons I was interested in making a film about this whole world. It's I think, partially altruistic, but I think it's also something like Kathleen's suggesting, it’s a lot more psychologically complicated. And I think that makes for a very rich film to dive into. In some ways, it’s about everyone's sort of desire to love or to be loved or to matter. I think it's ultimately this much bigger desire for each person to be bigger than themselves, to be bigger than life in a way. I think the same desire is really, in some cases, shared by the recipients in the film. In Rachel's case, it is literally risking her life to create life. 

Kathleen: One of the things I find so fascinating about this story is the women taking a thing that’s always been mediated through culture, through law, through society — which is who can impregnate them — and taking matters into their own hands. On one side that's very freeing and empowering, but on the other side, when you decide to go outside the system, there are no rules. You don’t know who you’re meeting with. You don't know what they're going to want in exchange. It can be a dark experience in one sense, but then a great experience in another because you do get to have a baby.

"This is very much a story of disruption. What happens when you don't follow the rules?"

I think the film was trying to show there is a full range to this world. If you go to a sperm bank, there are legal forms to fill out. You will have a full explanation of how these donors have been screened. If you decide to go on Facebook, you're taking matters into your own hands. As you see in the film, you don’t really know who these people are and you don’t have the legal and institutional safeguards that a sperm bank would have. To me, this is very much a story of disruption. What happens when you don't follow the rules? And what you get, I think, what you see in the film is a very complicated picture.

Was it important to you to show that this can be empowering, when I think many people would be focused on the dark side of it? 

Lance: The movie kind of starts off in this very transactional place, but as it goes on, even when you try to maintain this faux sense of professionalism that goes into it, in every interaction, humanity finds its way. We didn't want to subscribe to the binaries — is this a bad thing or is a good thing. The fact that it exists, and the fact that it is a very complicated world and there's all kinds of experiences, we wanted to try and make something that captured that kaleidoscope, that every moment, a moment that could start off really tender could end in a really uneasy place and vice versa.

Without this market being regulated, it seems like there are opportunities for people to be taken advantage of, which was kind of hinted at at one point in the documentary. Can you tell me about the decision not to focus on that in the documentary? 

Kathleen: As you see in the film, there is chatter about things like that happening. And we looked into various things. Ultimately, I think the point of the film is to see how risky this truly is, but only focusing on that particular angle of it wouldn’t be accurate either. 

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Lance: Ultimately, what the movie ends up becoming about is something much bigger than the Facebook groups or sperm donation or even the quest to have a family. It's something that to me, is about longing, to feel worthy of something, to feel like you matter in the world. 

Can you share any updates on where some of the people in the documentary are now? 

Lance: Rachel is doing much better than where she was when we finished making the film. She’s doing better, but of course, mortality hangs on her shoulder for every moment in her life. She's no longer pursuing having a child just because she wants to get her health and her affairs in order. Ari’s mother recently passed, which I think has kind of brought a lot of things into perspective for Ari. I think Tyree and Atasha are still very much in the process of adopting Italy.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Documentary Health Ivf Reproductive Rights Science Sperm Spermworld