Commodifying Conception: The Material Culture of Sperm Banks
It has become cliché to acknowledge that nearly everything can be commodified: for instance, a legion of dating sites sell the chance to engineer a love connection; the most common of all substances—water—is bottled, sold, and branded with astounding popularity throughout the world; and insurance policies have long placed exchange values on limbs and lives alike. We of course live in a global consumer society that values things—concrete objects, but also social relations, and even experiences and ethereal emotions–in economic terms. Such exchange values do not determine material meaning, and we have not been captured in the vortex often referred to as “false consciousness,” but exchange value has an enormous influence on how we define a breadth of materiality.
Contemporary parents are simply one market niche inundated with commodities that start parental consumption before conception itself (for instance, see the ultrasound picture frames or the ovulation predictor kits). For those seeking more agency over that moment of conception a host of sperm banks hawk designer genetic material. Buying and selling sperm is theoretically no different than peddling any good, be it a comic book or blood: we exercise some amount of shoppers’ discretion to buy Silver Surfer or consume A-positive. The blood is not trafficked in a purely laissez faire marketplace, but it has some genuine exchange value even if we cannot buy a liter at the local marketplace.
Sperm banks cannot be reduced simply to sites of commodification. For many consumers, sperm banks are not social engineering and aesthetic vanity: instead, many couples or individuals cannot otherwise parent children because of infertility or because they are something other than the normative straight couple. Nevertheless, much of the public discourse on sperm banks has revolved around the commodification of sperm and the ways this illuminates the complicated union of technological progress and consumer culture.
A contemporary consumer can peruse many sperm banks’ offerings online, and if we have the money we have enormous freedom to select the personal and genetic characteristics we hope to pass on to our children. Exchange value attempts to sidestep ethics and reduce meaning to rational profit, but hawking sperm inevitably devolves into a thorny set of emotional and ethical questions over how we distinguish between “good” and “bad” sperm. On the one hand, sperm shopping is an individual consumer decision theoretically no different than the attribute assessment any of us would exercise shopping for shoes or a car: that is, we exercise our personal tastes as we compare shoes in terms of function, style, and cost. On the other hand, we do not really “shop” for our children’s genetic attributes from a grocery list or with the sense that we can control eye color, personality, intelligence, or appearance. We somehow trust such things to faith, accept that they remain out of our control, and do not believe that power over this or any other medical procedure is (or should be) restricted by class. Sperm banks, though, offer the chance to micro-manage genetic attributes for a price, which charitably might be termed “choice,” but it may more soberly be interpreted as reproducing latent xenophobia, cultural stereotypes, structural class and social inequalities, and deep-seated prejudices.
Most of the sperm samples provided by Fairfax Cryobank are in their “graduate” category and come from men who “are in the process of earning or have completed a post college graduate degree.” The donor descriptions craft a predictable range of attractive personality profiles that stress their donors’ claims to “genius,” but the most distinctive dimension of the profiles may be their invocation of a variety of popular cultural caricatures. Donor 4317, for example, has “a Masters degree in Astronautical Engineering” and he “values honesty and considers himself a very patient man. … A Clark Kent look-a-like, he is quite handsome with beautiful, soulful brown eyes and an enticing sweet smile.” The “Clark Kent” characterization invokes a disguised super hero confident in his inner strength who may be both man and super-man; Donor 2790 has “been compared to the actor Josh Groban”; Donor 2781 “resembles a young, clean-cut Jim Carrey”; Donor 2792 “resembles a young Marlon Brando”; “He’s been told that he resembles Ben Affleck, though the lab staff thinks that Donor 2770 is the more handsome of the two. This donor is a real head-turner”; Donor 2782 “is definitely a staff favorite. His dashing, James Bond-like looks certainly make him a ‘10’”; Donor 2774 “resembles a young Stephen Baldwin”; and “With his clean-cut looks, his eyeglasses, and his black hair parted on the side,” Donor 2777 (like Donor 4317) “looks like a modern-day Clark Kent.”
Fairfax is not alone in their effort to link popular cultural symbols with their samples. California Cryobank, for instance, offers a service that specifies the donors’ celebrity “look-alikes.” The description for Donor 13476, for instance, is labeled “Lost in Conversation – Or in His Eyes” and likened (with Google image links) to “Ewan McGregor (young), [and] Joshua Jackson”; and Donor 13385—described as “The Man Behind the Mask” who “even built his own Iron Man costume”—is likened to “James Franco, [and] Orlando Bloom.” The spoof sperm bank Fame Daddy even promised to deliver the sperm of celebrities from aristocrats to soccer players. Yet European Sperm Bank USA explicitly resists celebrity look-alike-donors, arguing that their donors “are not a fantasy to be packaged and sold in California as celebrity clones. … We think that physical features are not the only important criteria to be considered in selecting a donor. Our team really gets to know a donor during the year that he is enrolled in our program. …These are the kind of fine men with proven character who you want to choose to make such an important genetic contribution to your family. You should not choose a donor because a marketing person thinks he can be packaged and sold as a celebrity look-a-like!”
All of the sperm banks include identification of the donor’s “ethnic background” and “ancestry,” and the assessment of those characteristics invokes deeper prejudices than warm feelings for Ewan McGregor and Clark Kent. Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 4533, for example, is described as Caucasian, his ethnic background is German-Norwegian/Swedish-Norwegian, and he “has the quintessential attractive Nordic appearance. He is tall and lean, and keeps fit through regular exercise and athletic activity. His handsome physical qualities are in keeping with his overall charming demeanor.”
Charlotte Kroløkke’s 2009 study examines how Cryos International positions its Scandinavian donors as “Vikings,” invoking a fascinating albeit stereotypical Viking heritage that gravitates toward a White Scandinavian ideal. The Cryos donor code-named Busk is a Danish archaeology PhD who is described in a staff assessment as “a very tall and strong build guy with broad shoulders and with his blond hair and blue eyes, his physical experience resembles the classical Viking. The Viking mentality, though, seems far gone and is replaced by an intellectual, reflected and sophisticated personality.” Cryos has tempered much of this transparent Viking rhetoric and embraces a multicultural and politically correct sperm shopping process; in various ways, every sperm bank accommodates its consumers’ prejudices by outlining physical, social, and cultural attributes that define a consumer’s idealized child attributes. Genome Resources, for instance, displays a relatively typical banner graphic with an African-American man, White woman, and a baby that implicitly underscores the sperm bank’s political commitment to a breadth of families. Fairfax Cryobank allows consumers to search donors using something it calls “FaceMatch,” a photographic similarity program that “uses the shape of facial features to find a resemblance between the photo you upload and the photos of our donors. FaceMatch uses shapes but not colors.” Most of the sperm banks evade the latent prejudices in such consumption choices and instead frame them as a consumer’s desire for a donor with “similar” physical appearance to the parents themselves.
Sperm banks labor to dodge the xenophobic dimensions of many consumers’ deep-seated prejudice for an “ideal” donor. Sperm banks specify the most detailed physical attributes of donors—wavy hair, eye color, skin tone, height, shoe size–as aesthetics that we assess in much the same way we decide on shoe color. Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe’s thorough and thoughtful 2012 analysis of sperm bank donors found that in 2006 80.4% of donors then identified to ethnicity were White (as compared to 66.4% of the US male population); only 3.5% of donors were Black, though they account for 12.2% of the male population. Sixty-five percent of donors have a college degree (as compared to 26% of the male population); while 23.8% of American men are obese, only 5.1% of donors are similarly overweight; and donors were more than four times as likely as average men to be over six feet tall.
In 2011 Cryos International stopped accepting donations from redheads, with Cryos director Ole Schou arguing that “Our stock is about to explode. We have just too many on stock in relation to the demand for the time being.” They simultaneously were not accepting more Scandinavian donors unless they had brown eyes, with Schou indicating that “What we need is brown-eyed Scandinavians/Caucasians and Mediterranean donors and other ethnicities and races. … The problem is that we are located in Scandinavia and ‘harvest’ donors here but we supply to more than 65 countries all over the whole world. They don’t always want Scandinavian donors out there.” This is perhaps simply the logical result of “market demand,” and it could be argued that the same choices are part of all courtship, but the sperm banks provide a new level of control over such factors.
Many sperm banks spin compelling stories about their donors that the sperm banks frame as being just as important as mere aesthetics. NW Cryobank, for instance, provides hand-written essays by donors in which content is perhaps not as important as the literal appearance of a donor’s hand-writing that somehow evokes their personality (e.g., see Donor 1263’s essay). Cryos International includes childhood images of many of the donors, such as Abild posing in Superman pajamas (many more services do the same, often for an additional cost). Cryos also offers interviews online, so for those who found Abild’s Superman jammies wonderful they can then hear his actual voice. Such mechanisms tend to defuse the notion that sperm shopping is simply latent xenophobia or a design to produce a superhuman, and it clouds distinctions between genetic and non-genetic attributes.
In 2007 The New York Times’ David Brooks lamented that sperm banks were simply bourgeois genetic engineering: “Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed. And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.” Indeed, sperm banks provide a potentially uncomfortable measure of the embrace of reproductive technology and the marketplace, but his position risks ignoring that many families would not exist without sperm banks. The thornier challenge is in the union of profiteering with assistive reproductive technologies like sperm donation and egg harvesting.
2007 Selling genes, selling gender: egg agencies, sperm banks, and the medical market in genetic material. American Sociological Review 72(3): 319-340. (subscription access)
2011 Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe
2012 Gendered Eugenics and the Problematic of Free Market Reproductive Technologies: Sperm and Egg Donation in the United States. Signs 37(3):719-747. (subscription access)
2009 Click a Donor: Viking masculinity on the line. Journal of Consumer Culture 9(1):7-30. (subscription access)
1998 The birds, the bees… and the sperm banks: How lesbian mothers talk with their children about sex and reproduction. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68(3): 400-409. (subscription access)
Lisa Jean Moore
2002 Extracting Men from Semen: Masculinity in Scientific Representations of Sperm. Social Text 20(4):91-119. (subscription access)
London Sperm Bank ad image courtesy mpieracci
London Sperm Bank banking crisis ad courtesy Joe Hughes
Sperm Donors Needed ad image courtesy baratunde