The off-white nectar: investigating the status of spunk in 2020
UK sperm counts are at an all-time low when demand for swimmers is higher than ever. Clare Considine takes a look at what this means for sperm and the massive economy surrounding testing, freezing and donating.
Ingrid Holme, a sociologist with a special interest in the sperm economy, is explaining how a man can produce a sample without the use of his hand. “An electrode goes up the anus,” she deadpans. Why on earth, I ask, would anybody go down that route? “Oh, that’s mostly used for dead bodies.”
In the weeks following our conversation this seemingly surreal aside proves pertinent when a report is released by the British Journal of Medical Ethics making the case for the legalisation of opt-in post-death sperm donations. This is in response to what can quite legitimately be described as a sperm crisis in the western world. A report by the Human Reproduction Update in 2017 found that sperm counts among men in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand had dropped by 59.3 per cent since 1973. Expert-offered reasons for this range from the invention of the laptop (scientific theory suggests that wi-fi and heat from laptops could damage sperm) to the stresses of modern life; but all agree that one in four couples are affected and 40 per cent of issues are male-related.
In the UK difficulties which have cropped up because of the drop in sperm quality are exacerbated by an all-time low in sperm donations. Back in 2016 the government’s first ever National Sperm Bank in Birmingham closed its doors after two years. It had received just nine donations in the whole time that it was open; one of the nine donors later asked for his sample back.
The UK’s sperm shortage is generally considered to be caused by two main factors. First, our clinics do not pay for sperm (unlike countries such as the US). Then there’s the fact that, since laws changed in 2005, any child conceived through IVF has access to their father’s identity once they turn 18. The massive drop in donations since a surprise knock at the door became more of a possibility serves as an interesting insight into donors’ mindsets.
Because of all this, more people than ever are desperately searching for ways to make their dream of having a family come true. And as the NHS struggles to keep pace with demand, a febrile sperm industry which runs the gamut from Silicon Valley start-ups offering men at-home sperm trackers to black market, Gumtree sperm sales has emerged.
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One thing is clear in 2020: men still hold their swimmers in very high regard. “We did a study of a thousand British men between the ages of 25 to 49,” says Morten Ulsted, CEO and co-founder of Exseed, a London-based tech company offering home test kits for men. “Of these only 42 per cent said that they had ever considered that they might have fertility concerns; 18 per cent said they’d consider getting tested; and 32 per cent said that they would only get tested if their partner did. They put the focus back onto the woman.”
Fertility has historically been considered a largely female concern. And yet virility lies at the very core of traditional notions of what it means to be male. These two things intersect at a black hole of knowledge where men trail way behind women when it comes to awareness of their reproductive health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “how much sperm is in an ejaculation” is a massive Google search term (an average half-teaspoon ejaculate contains 200 million sperm, in case you’re wondering). And so it follows that modern men are interested in their fertility even if they haven’t been taught to research or talk openly about it yet. “Men will probably only know they’re having problems at the point that they’re trying to have a child,” says Holme. “Unless we educate kids at school they’ll have unrealistic expectations about their futures.”
Companies like Exseed and Legacy, a US home-testing service that also offers global sperm-freezing facilities, are looking to get men up to speed. “I actually think that what we’re doing is inherently feminist,” says Khaled Kteily, CEO of Legacy. “We’re rebalancing the responsibility of family planning.” And he may be right. But in order to effect change he has to get men on board.
The recent rise in the slick, Apple-aesthetics world of spermtech appears to be down to a savvy realisation by companies like Ulsted and Kteily’s that men respond well to a touch of narcissism. New tech allows men to see their sperm swimming around on their smartphone screen within minutes of shooting their load. A “discreet package” arrives within two days of ordering online, containing tubs for “delivering sample”, the man then takes a drop of his sample and places it onto a slide which is inserted into a device that looks a little like a mini cordless mouse. This then sends a reading to his smartphone within two minutes, transforming his phone screen into a virtual sperm tank.
“It’s a pretty cool moment – to see your own swimmers just going wild there,” says Ulsted. “We’ve found that’s actually highly motivating for men.” Plus, this is the age of the fit-bit, what Ulsted calls “the quantified self”. Just as men can improve their BMIs and miles per minute, they can also work on improving their fertility rates through diet and exercise (a largely male luxury, for women there’s comparatively little they can do in terms of lifestyle to redress fertility issues).
Exseed are one of a number of new tech companies cashing in on an industry dubbed “Big Sperm”. None of these companies is more than five years old, but the industry is projected to be worth $40bn by the end of 2020.
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The hopes and dreams of people looking to start a family is clearly big business. The few official sperm banks in the UK, such as the London Sperm Bank (LSB) and Manchester’s Semovo, are private and charge anything upwards of £850 to hopeful parents for their services. They have rigorous application processes — The Guardian reported back in 2015 that LSB were turning away dyslexic donors — and only around 5 per cent of applicants to donate are successful.
This leads straight to the heart of an ever-growing “sperm black market” in the UK. The term is a Daily Mail hack’s wet dream, but the reality is far more nuanced. People feeling disempowered by the cost and hoop-jumping through the UK’s official channels are looking to alternatives in the hopes of gaining some control over the situation.
“It is not illegal for donors to donate privately, or for recipients to use privately donated sperm,” explains Natalie Gamble, a lawyer at the UK’s first specialist fertility law firm. “Websites which just connect people and don’t store or transport sperm do not need a licence to do this.” In fact, Facebook pages with names like “FREE SPERM DONORS & RECIPIENTS SOUTH UK” and more professional-looking websites like Pride Angel or Pollen Tree, have a “classifieds” energy about them.
For instance, on the “Sperm Donor & Recipient reference group UK” Facebook page, one post reads: “Hi guys me and my beautiful fiancee are looking for… someone that we can 100% trust and that can provide full clean STI checks. We are AI [artificial insemination] ONLY. We are in the Birmingham area but we can travel [smiley face emoji]”. It comes accompanied by a joyous picture of two beaming women, one waving a bejewelled ring-finger at the camera.
Donors’ sales pitches range from the low-bar: “Recent “all clear” sti checks + all previous tests clear” to more taste-based accolades like “6’1” foot tall and slim/medium build, blue eyes, brown hair” or “Emotionally and intellectually intelligent”.
Offers of sperm by NI only (Natural Insemination) offer a straightforward red flag. But as with finding dates or hook-ups online, there’s little way of knowing what sort of individual you’re dealing with unless you actually meet them. Gamble says the many pitfalls surrounding private donation arrangements range from unhealthy unscreened sperm, to donors unwittingly becoming obligated to pay child maintenance. At the other end of the spectrum, children are unable to access information on their fathers in later life.
At the same time, she acknowledges the flexibility that private arrangements can offer. What a nuclear family looks like in 2020 is evolving massively. Operating outside the NHS system allows parents and donors to work out their own sliding scale of involvement. “Private donation gives the opportunity for children to grow up knowing more about their donor than they would if they were conceived at a clinic,” says Gamble. “We also see successful co-parenting arrangements, where a known father plays more of a role in the child’s life”.
So what do the NHS and official sperm banks need to do if they want to regain some semblance of control over the UK market? Holme points out that UK blood donations have been decreasing in line with sperm donations, attributing this to “less willingness to pay into community spirit”.
On the flipside, a large percentage of black market sperm offers come without a price tag. And so maybe all that potential donors are looking for is a setting where their swimmers aren’t heavily judged on IQ and rugged good looks, or they don’t want accountability.
Either way, both Holme and Gamble say the NHS needs to up its game if it wants to remain part of the sperm conversation. “There is an argument now that so few people get their sperm through the NHS that it’s in that limbo area,” says Holmes. “Maybe this should never have been offered through the NHS? But if it’s not offered through the NHS, why does the state want to regulate it?”
As we enter a sort of reverse-Gilead, where viable sperm becomes increasingly rare, it is inevitable in a free-market capitalist economy that it is being commodified from all angles. Nothing is easier to commodify than emotions and nothing is more emotive than family.
For every concern over sperm’s decreasing supply we should take heart in the fact that increasing demand reflects a world in which all types of people — from single women to gay couples — see themselves as potential parents. And Holmes would argue, whether a donor wishes to be involved in the life of their offspring or not, their intentions should still be commended. “They might have an image in their head of the family that they’re donating to,” she says. “The idea of making the world a better place can mean that we want to live in that better place. So [in this instance] I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a little bit narcissistic.”