Social media sperm donors
It is a Sunday afternoon and Louise, 36, is sat the bar of a West London hotel waiting for the man she met online. She fidgets constantly, brimming with nervous anticipation as she frantically checks her phone. This is the moment she has longed for since she first read the man’s profile.
The moment they would meet and he would at last give her what she needed; what she craved. Casting her eyes upwards she finally sees him, striding purposefully towards the table where she sits. She stands up, smiling with relief and expectation as he comes to a halt a few inches in front of her. He nods, shyly averting his eyes as he passes her the room key, while retrieving something from his pocket which he slips hurriedly into her hand. Finally he meets her eyes, his face breaking into a satisfied grin. “Good luck”, he utters, before turning on his heel to exit the hotel, leaving Louise in the bar with her wife and a syringe full of semen.
Louise is one of thousands of people desperately seeking semen online. As she and her wife Mary, 35, lack the biological means to fertilise her eggs, they turned to Facebook to find a donor. A quick search turns up multiple groups which pair prospective parents with semen suppliers. The profiles are not unlike dating bios, with members sharing their ages, occupations and of course their STD status and fertility credentials. A typical post from a donor will read:
“London AI donor, Half English, Spanish. 5'11" dark brown hair. Fortunate to have no health problems. Never smoked or taken drugs. Somehow scored 129 on an IQ test. Recent clean STI check. So far I have helped 3 couples & I plan to stop at 6/7.”
Many have profile pictures up, giving a preview of their genetic material and racial background which they include in their bio.
“Genuine Healthy 26yr blue eyes dark brown hair willing to help donor NI-AI , Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Recent checks available. Send a message. Travel anywhere in reason for travel costs”.
The different acronyms stand for various methods of fertilisation. These are Artificial Insemination (AI), Partial natural Insemination (PI) and Natural Insemination (NI). While AI entails the recipient inserting the donated sperm with a syringe, PI involves the donor bringing themselves to the brink of orgasm before ejaculating inside the recipient. NI is the rather novel method of simply having sexual intercourse.
The recipients’ posts tend to be more detailed, including wedding photos and family snaps in the hope of showing their viability as parents. They often share details about finances, education, relationship length and their journey to wanting children. Some recipients also specify physical features they would like from their donors, such as race or eye colour.
A typical post will read:
“Hi me and my wife are looking for a donor (no NI please) we don't drink or smoke we have our own house and both work full time jobs (I work 2 ) :) We would prefer the donor to have absolutely no contact with the child very minimal updates if that's okay :) We will pay for your travel! We welcome all ethnicities, we’re not religious but it really doesn't matter if you are! Thank you for looking or considering us! Oh and having a child is something I've wanted since I was about 10 years old so I’ve waited a long time for this ”
Though rare, there are also gay men and couples looking to offer their sperm and co-parent the resultant child but these are more common on co-parenting specific sites. On the sperm donation pages, lesbian couples are by far the largest recipient group, but there are also plenty of single women and some heterosexual couples where the male party has fertility issues.
A standard post from a single woman will read: “New here. Any donors Yorkshire area? White male (tall if possible lol) new to all this but I’m 25 and single. Very broody . Ideally somebody who would also be a donor for me for siblings. Thank you please pm me so we can sort out what each other’s expectations and wishes are. Open to methods. Please no time wasters.”
It is essential that both sides’ expectations are agreed upon before proceeding, especially because the legalities surrounding private donations are incredibly obscure. Factors like the mother’s relationship status during conception and the insemination method could result in the donor having legal obligations. Fertility law specialists Natalie Gamble Associates explained that a sperm donor who donates through sexual intercourse is always the legal father of any child conceived, irrespective of what is agreed or recorded on the birth certificate. This was taken to task in a 2013 court case when a private donor was ruled to be a child’s legal father as he had conducted an affair with the mother. NGA advises that people entering into a private donation dynamic draw up a pre-conception agreement, but this still may not be recognised by law.
However, if recipients go through a Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority-licenced fertility clinic, the donor is completely absolved. The legislation states that donors will not be named on the birth certificate and will have no parental or financial obligations. This route also ensures thorough STD and health screenings. While using a clinic offers many benefits, there is one major drawback. The cost.
For a same-sex female couple to be offered Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) - treated semen being inserted directly into the womb - on the NHS, they must have first undergone six unsuccessful rounds of IUI at a personal cost of up to £1600 a squirt. Heterosexual couples are expected to try to conceive naturally for two years or have undergone 12 rounds of IUI before being offered fertility treatment.
This route, complete with its waiting lists, simply isn’t feasible for many, and treatment may still be denied depending on the particular Clinical Commissioning Group’s policy. For example, some NHS clinics treat women up to the age of 42, while others cap treatment at 36. However, finding a donor online is faster, easier and the recipient gets to actually meet the donor which many consider important.
Since 1 April 2005, people conceived via a sperm, egg or embryo donation thereafter have been legally entitled to access information about their donor when they turn 16. This includes their donor’s physical description, the year and country of their birth, whether they have children and their marital status. The child is also privy to the donor’s full name and most recent address when they turn 18. However, the closest the recipient parents will likely get to the person who enabled their pregnancy is reading their online bio.
Michelle, 33, from Chicago said the hardest part of selecting a donor was “finding someone we have a connection with and who we can genuinely trust.” Michelle and her wife Klara, 27, consider it vital that their child can reach out to their donor in the future. Michelle is especially aware of this urge for genetic confirmation as she was raised by adoptive parents and met her biological family as an adult. She said it was: “extremely important for me to know where I came from. I don’t keep in touch with my biological family but knowing who they were helped to fill a void. So the bare minimum we would like is that when our kid is of age that they at least get to reach out and talk to the donor at least once.”
Louise and her wife also want their child to be able to have any questions answered, which they discussed with their donor over coffee. The couple warmed to him instantly, describing him as an academic who didn’t want children of his own, but who “genuinely wanted to help people.” This was how the pair found themselves twiddling their thumbs in the hotel bar while he masturbated upstairs.
Once the donor had come and gone, the insemination followed. Louise explained she would carry the child as her gender-queer wife would find pregnancy dysphoric. The fundamentals of insemination are fairly straightforward, the recipient inserts the semen into their vagina and lays back for 20 minutes while gravity takes effect. Louise shared that she had first applied a pre-seed lubricant, meant to encourage the sperm’ performance and added a menstrual disc after insemination to avoid any leakage.
The clandestine nature of their hotel rendezvous was due to the donor living the other side of the city and wanting to meet quickly during Louise’s ‘surge’. This is when a woman experiences a rush of Luteinizing hormone, signalling she is about to ovulate. But many people prefer to meet in a hotel regardless of distance to maintain a certain level of formality and to increase safety.
Like Louise, Michelle says she and her wife will only use AI, but some recipients are open to NI. Unsurprisingly, such recipients tend to get mass responses. One frustrated woman wrote:
“With Natural insemination... Does anyone else feel like they are just getting hit on in this group? I want some genuine people who are willing to help me have my dream of becoming a mum!”
As you would imagine a number of men are merely seeking sex and therefore insist exclusively upon NI. Louise revealed that her first message consisted of a middle aged man posing in some suspiciously grey looking Y-fronts. Michelle said: “That's one down fall about trying to go through these web sites is that you have to spend time weeding out the creeps.”
Michael, 45, a construction worker, donates solely by AI and said:
“Anyone that says they only do NI are just doing it for sex. But people I’ve helped have told me about other so called “donors” that have already agreed to do AI and when they meet say that they’ll only do NI. Obviously, they said no, but I wonder how many women desperate for a baby have reluctantly agreed? It’s a criminal offence to do that: it’s called coercive rape, or sexual coercion.”
I consider these men to be coercive sexual abusers, and I don’t include them when I refer to donors collectively. On the donor groups, the larger proportion offer and even insist upon AI. This means the donor gets neither sexual satisfaction nor paternal fulfilment from donating. There’s no financial gain either as while clinics pay around £35 per sample, private donors cannot legally charge for sperm. So what motivates these men to donate?
Is it simply the altruistic act of helping others achieve their dream of having a family? This is the primary reason given, maintained by multiple donors. Steve, 40, a lorry driver from Hampshire said he donates: “Because it costs me nothing to help people, and IVF is very expensive.”
Many of the donors have children of their own and want to extend that experience to others. Michael, who has two of his own children, commented: “Being a Dad is the best thing I’ve ever done, so I want to help others that can’t have kids for whatever reason, join the fun of parenthood.” Philip, 44, from Preston is father to two children and said he donates because: “I’ve got children myself and it’s something I heard about and thought it’s something I want to do. A wonderful gift to be able to give others.”
Relationship and Sex Therapist Miranda Christophers confirms genuine compassion could be a motivation: “For some men, the reason may be a social one whereby they can give something meaningful to someone who may be desperate to start a family. They may take the view that it costs them nothing but gives a great deal to someone else.”
It is also true that helping other people provides a sense of personal fulfilment. Academics James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander wrote in their paper entitled The Helper’s High: “Psychologists have identified a typical state of euphoria reported by those engaged in charitable activity. They call it ‘helper’s high,’ and it’s based on the theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that provide a mild version of a morphine high. When we’re motivated by a true spirit of generosity, we benefit as much as those on the receiving end. Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello says it this way: ‘Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism. … I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others.’”
This certainly rings true for a number of the donors interviewed. Vincent, a Biologist from Cambridge in his 50s commented: “Why do I do it? I’m a blood donor, but the experience when you get a success is better and more joyous than the righteous feeling of giving blood.”
For Philip, the desire for validation went beyond just his own, as during his interview, he asked me: “Do you agree it’s a wonderful gift?” Seemingly craving some recognition for generosity.
So the genuine desire to help others does seem a motivating factor, and the concomitant sense of satisfaction is a welcome addition. But inevitably, there seems to be a certain level of egotism associated with being fertile. One donor wrote: “Just got some good news today-I still fire good ones” while another’s display picture was a cartoon meme of a blue eyed toddler which read ‘I make adorable babies.’ Many donors post snaps of positive pregnancy tests and ultrasound scans while one man sent me a clip of his semen darting about under a microscope. It seems the propensity to impregnate a woman remains somewhat entangled in the male psyche as proof of manhood. It even extends to sexual fantasy, with ‘breeding porn’ with titles such as ‘Hot wife in need of breeding’ being a popular subcategory of adult material.
A poignant example is a sketch from comedian Ben Elton where he envisages providing a sperm sample to the doctor. In his fantasy, Elton heaves an overflowing dustbin of sperm into the doctor’s office, before sneering: “There you go mate, you’ll have to wrestle the little sods first!” Elton then described the reality where his sample resembled “a sparrow’s sneeze.” The amount of laughter from the audience showed the mental link between sperm and virility was wholly relatable. By this reckoning, nothing proves a man’s worth like producing super sperm which practically leaps out of the specimen pot in search of an ovum.
Subtly distinct from the desire to prove fertility, is the desire to reproduce. To have offspring and pass on your DNA as a kind of legacy. Charles, 36, a novelist from London explained: “I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want children, but I do want to leave something behind and help people.” Several donors mentioned the continuation of their genes being a factor. The male desire to quite literally spread his seed could be hardwired into the primordial brain, as evolutionary-biologist Richard Dawkins explains in his book The Selfish Gene. “But the obvious first priorities of a survival machine, and of the brain that takes the decisions for it, are individual survival and reproduction.”
So, getting women pregnant could be fulfilling a somewhat primal need. Sex and Relationship Psychotherapist Mary Clegg said: “We haven’t really evolved from the caveman in terms of our basic functions. This isn’t a feminist stance neither is it a sexist stance, I see these roles play out with my clients every day. In my opinion, the need to procreate would still be an innate part of a man. It would also be an innate part of a woman to have, raise and nurture a child, whether she’s in a gay or straight relationship.”
But Mary seemed surprised that those same male instincts did not extend to wanting to raise the child. For these men the desire to be a father is entirely separate from the desire to procreate. This desire is apparently so strong that some donors keep their spermy side-line a secret from their partners.
Michael hasn’t told his partner as he feared she might “go nuts” and said: “The way I see it is that I’m not actually doing anything wrong.” Women viewing donation as a bigger deal than their donor partners is fairly common. Michelle’s first donor backed out because his wife became unhappy.
Vincent also hides his pastime from his wife of almost 30 years as she would “See it as a rejection.” He said: “It is my body and I will use it as I wish. Donation does not involve any violation of my marriage vows, but I can quite see that she would see things differently. This is not on a par with having an affair, but I’m still being discreet.” Vincent seemed eager to defend his duplicitous activity by saying: “It is about as worrying as thinking she might find my Christmas presents to her hidden in the cupboard. She would be annoyed with me for a while, but my conscience is clear.”
Steve, who at the time of interviewing had assisted with 17 pregnancies, said his wife doesn’t know about his donating as their relationship is “a bit complicated.”
It could be considered that some of these men feel that donating is something unique and is just for them. A singular part of their life that is separate from their daily reality and the people in it.
That is not to say that the majority of donors are not discerning about who they donate to. Mark, 39, a welding inspector from Georgia, shared his particular criterion. He said: “They have to have a stable job. And through conversation, I decide whether or not I'll donate to them. Also if we agree about everything that each party expects.”
When asked if the recipient’s appearance was a factor, Mark said: “Not really, yes I make beautiful babies, but it's more of a genetic thing, being a healthy baby and also I'd like the child to have every advantage they can have in life. I'm divorced and wanted more kids. This is a way for me to do that, pass on my DNA and help others.”
An especially prolific donor named Kyle, a financier from California, said he didn’t want to regret not having kids later on: “I realized I would never have kids of my own so this was kinda like a compromise. I get to make sure I at least have offspring I made and women get to have kids. The other good perk is I do not have to pay for any of the children.”
Kyle was the only donor I spoke to who insisted on using his real name, as he wanted recipients to seek him out. A donor since the age of 22, he follows a special diet, shares fertility tips and is a fount of knowledge on donor law and practices. He even has his own blog. At the time of interviewing, Kyle had had helped over 20 women get pregnant by all methods, with his main proviso being that the recipient is financially stable. He has donated across the US and abroad and said he would like to donate further afield, provided his travel was paid for.
For Kyle, being a sperm donor has become a part of his identity which will continue for as long as he is able. When questioned about the threat of future incest, Kyle said he has kept track of every donor child and they even have their own Facebook group. Steve has done the same: “To avoid incest in the future. And if one is in need of something like blood they can communicate.”
Something striking about Kyle was his use possessive and nepotistic language when he referred to “my kids” or explained “I had a child with her.” He has also met several of the children he helped produce, seemingly enjoying a kind of diluted snapshot of fatherhood with none of the responsibility.
I wonder if there is sense of craving closeness? Kyle said he wasn’t “much of a relationship person” but through donating, he gets to share in the joy and familiarity of a family, albeit fleetingly. Divorced Charles, said his relationships tend to make everyone involved miserable but spoke with a kind of shy fondness about his recipient couple. “We have lots in common, they’re both vegetarians like me. We speak on WhatsApp most days.”
For men who may feel emotionally unfulfilled, donating offers a sense of being needed. When asked, single donor Philip said he would be open to having a romantic relationship with the recipient if it developed naturally. Forming personal connections can be challenging, but donating affords the donor an immediate inroad into the recipients’ personal lives. The donor gets to feel wanted and important entirely on the basis of having functioning testes.
Clearly, men’s reasons for donating are multifarious and vary widely from donor to donor. In this scenario, people desperate to have children get to do so, regardless of what the donor’s personal motivation may be. As neither side desires the donor’s parental input, everyone’s needs are met.
Of all the people I spoke to, both sides were insistent that they did not consider donors as fathers in any way. In particular donors with children state that it is the relationship with the child which defines their paternity, mentioning helping with homework and nursing through illness. This can be summarised by socio-biologist Robert Trivers’ theory of parental investment, which he defines as “any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring's chance of surviving (and hence reproductive success) at the cost of the parent's ability to invest in other offspring.”
It is striking that comparatively few women donate eggs, despite the £750 compensation. Undeniably, the process is far more intrusive, involving hormone injections and probes, while sperm donors simply endure a perfunctory orgasm. But it is clear that women appear to feel more of a responsibility to their reproductive cells as potential children. Not making this link is a desirable and even necessary trait in sperm donors. Concurrently, it is this same propensity to detach gametes from fatherhood which enables men to abandon children or be reckless about contraception.
The difference lies entirely in the individual’s application of this trait. These men who donate their sperm to people online are supplying an urgent demand. But they are also providing people with the chance to love and nurture new life, which can be considered the greatest of gifts.
Gillian Fisher is a freelance arts and culture journalist who is fascinated by people and the stories they have to tell.