Semen as Gift, Semen as Goods:
Reproductive Workers and the Market
DIANE M. TOBER
U.C. Men, Get Paid for Something You’re Already Doing! Call the Sperm Bank of California.
(Advertisement, Daily Californian)
This advertisement, found in a university newspaper, for recruiting semen donors
points to several issues central to debates surrounding the commodiﬁcation of
genetic material and the body as a site of labor: (1) the cultural assumptions under-
lying donor recruitment and screening; (2) the bioethical issues surrounding paid
versus ‘altruistically given’ donations; (3) the role of sexuality in the reproductive
industry. The ways in which these issues are addressed and regulated are by no
means uniform throughout the sperm-banking industry, and point to the multiple
complex ethical issues surrounding the commodiﬁcation of the body and its prod-
ucts. This article will explore how cultural interpretations of genetic inheritance
inﬂuence the screening of sperm donors
– by sperm banks and their clients – and
the market for donor sperm.
This article draws on ﬁeldwork in sperm banks,
interviews with single women and lesbian couples having children through donor
insemination (DI), and interviews with semen donors.
Mary Douglas (1966) has discussed the parallels between the body and the
social hierarchy, and how pollution beliefs – particularly those surrounding the
boundaries of the body and exchanges of bodily ﬂuids – are linked to a system of
morality. The buying and selling of sperm in many ways violates, yet simul-
taneously reproduces, this social/moral order. For example, the ability to
purchase sperm in order to have children deﬁes traditional notions of family and
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2001 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi),
Vol. 7(2–3): 137–160
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procreation within the bounds of marriage. However, the way in which donors
are selected in many ways replicates these values: women typically choose men
who are of their same ethnic and educational background – the kind of man they
would choose to be with if they were to be with a man. Repositories, too, select
donors who ﬁt a particular proﬁle: men who appear intelligent, educated, moder-
ately attractive and ‘altruistic’. Sperm donation, then, provides a window to
reproductive values and a social/moral system, as well as the dynamics between
culture and biology or ‘biosociality’ (Rabinow, 1992).
The sperm-banking industry and the market for sperm are both heavily inﬂu-
enced by the notion that some traits – social or physical – are more desirable than
others, and that these traits reside in the sperm. Semen is a vehicle for the trans-
mission of genetic material; as such, various complex meanings – biological,
evolutionary, historical, cultural, political, technological, sexual – intersect at this
particular site. The notions of what semen is thought to contain affects how and
what (or whose) semen is being transacted. Culturally held perceptions of (and
preoccupations with) genetics, with sperm as a transmitter of genetic material,
shape the ways in which potential donors are screened and their semen sold.
Indeed, these notions of what semen (or ova, for that matter) contains, coupled
with cultural values surrounding the reproduction of certain types of individuals
over others, affects the entire market for human gametes.
Technological reproduction is a multi-billion dollar per year industry (US
Congress OTA, 1988: 61–71). This industry is not limited to the sale of gametes
(semen or ova), but rather includes the entire gamut of conceptive technologies,
including a variety of treatments for infertility. Becker (2000) discusses how couples
seeking medical treatment for infertility become consumers of these technologies.
Kimbrell (1993) provides a commentary on the design and commodiﬁcation of life,
through the sale of body parts, gametes and blood. Here, he demonstrates how the
market – through technology – is increasingly encroaching upon the human body,
forcing us to redeﬁne life, death, personhood and property, usually at the expense
of ethics. On a parallel note, Duster (1990) demonstrates the relationship between
genetics and society, documenting shifting notions of heritability and their inﬁl-
tration into popular discourse. Given the marketability of the human body (and
what it produces) and current emphasis on the dubious heritability of a plethora of
traits, one can make the argument that these perceived ‘genetic traits’ have economic
value – and are marketable. The semen donor, then, is viewed as the prototype for
the child that will be produced by his sperm. For example, one single woman,
Sandy, told me how she screened out a particular donor:
There was one guy who had a really high sperm count and he was Mexican, which I thought
about because my daughter’s dad is Mexican . . . but I read his narrative and he liked to collect
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guns and drive cars and I’m like ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I just don’t need a little member of the
NRA running around. So I’m thinking these things aren’t genetically linked, of course they’re
not. But, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well to some extent, why play with it?’
When this informant imagined the person resulting from the sperm of this
particular donor, she envisions ‘a little member of the NRA’, despite her acknowl-
edgment that gun-collecting traits are not genetically linked. She was afraid that to
have a child with this man’s sperm would result in reproducing a type of person she
would not want to see more of in her social world. She ﬁnally decided on the sperm
of a man who had completed graduate school, someone who was more like herself.
Throughout the sperm-banking industry, as well as among consumers who
purchase semen for insemination, certain donor characteristics are thought to be
of higher value than others and to reside in the sperm itself. Good physical health
is of primary importance; without it, one would not normally pass screening
procedures for becoming a donor. Beyond that, the perceived value of a donor
becomes more complex: physical traits like height, weight, hair/eye color; social
traits like education, ‘personality’, motivation for becoming a donor, willingness
to be identiﬁed; and more blurry traits like ethnicity, intelligence and altruism
have varying values depending upon both the repository doing the screening and
consumer demands. The question here is: how do locally held perceptions of what
semen is thought to contain affect its exchange value?
Emily Martin has discussed how the reproductive metaphors in scientiﬁc
language are gendered – sperm is depicted as the aggressor and the egg viewed as
the passive recipient – based on stereotypical male–female roles (1991). Similarly,
repository employees, as well as recipients, attribute a variety of traits to donor
sperm, assigning it a personality, which would presumably be exhibited by the
offspring of that sperm, regardless of the biological contributions of the mother
or the environmental conditions in which the offspring was to be raised. For
example, in the case of Sandy, above, the impact of the imagined traits of the sperm
is elevated, whereas the social and biological contributions of the mother are mini-
mized in relation to the eventual personality of the child. Similarly, a lesbian
couple told me how they chose a donor:
We wanted someone bright. I wanted someone tall. I think it’s an advantage in life. All of them
have to be healthy so that sort of goes without saying, but after health came brightness. But,
there were certain professions that we thought were smarter than others. Some people seemed
too nerdy, you know they played badminton or didn’t drink coffee or something. From the
information you get on the piece of paper [the donor proﬁle] you just think the doctor who
plays basketball and drinks two cups of coffee a day sounds more like our type than the book-
keeper who doesn’t drink coffee and plays badminton. . . . The donor we ﬁnally picked was a
doctor, 6 foot 4 inches, played basketball and drank coffee. We felt like if we met him, we could
relate to him, and maybe our child would inherit some of his qualities that we liked.
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The sperm of the educated man, then, has more social and emotional value than
does the sperm of a man who appears less educated and has hobbies of question-
able social value. The way in which women choose their donors based on their
own interpretations of what are valuable genetic traits to pass on to future
offspring is what I have referred to elsewhere, as ‘grass roots eugenics’ (Tober,
1998), which also has an impact on the emotional and commodity quality of
Gifts, Commodities and Seminal Value
A commodity is, in the ﬁrst place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisﬁes
human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they
spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. (Marx, 1906: 41)
Throughout the anthropological literature, gifts have been discussed in terms of
how social relations are formed and solidiﬁed through the acts of gift giving.
Drawing on Mauss (1954), the gift itself is not considered important; what is
signiﬁcant is the system of complex social relations one enters into through the
acts of giving and receiving. Furthermore, gifts are typically distinguished from
commodities, items which are bought and sold, where social relations between
persons are disguised behind the transfer of money and goods. Appadurai (1986)
has critiqued the simpliﬁcation of gift/commodity distinctions in much of
anthropological writing on the subject (e.g. Dumont, 1980; Hyde, 1979; Taussig,
1980), and has offered (along with Bourdieu, 1977) the notion that gift exchange
is a particular form of the circulation of commodities. For example, as Mauss
(1954: 77) states:
The producer who carries on exchange feels . . . that he is exchanging more than a product of
hours of working time, but that he is giving something of himself – his time, his life. Thus he
wishes to be rewarded, even if only moderately, for this gift. To refuse him this reward is to
make him become idle or less productive.
Here, Mauss does not make a distinction between the gift, and the fact that the
labor that goes into the gift is bought and paid for – this is especially true with
Transactions involving the giving, buying and selling of semen conﬂate the
distinction between gift and commodity exchanges. Semen, as a product that is
bought and sold, marketed, categorized, screened, etc. appears to be a commodity.
The woman purchases the semen, takes her product home, and hopefully gets the
desired result – a pregnancy and a child. These transactions, however, though
attempting to deny social relations of ‘fatherhood’, cannot escape them. First, the
donor who provides semen for a woman’s child becomes the subject of fantasy
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and fetish – some sort of social relationship exists at least in the realm of the
imagination and certainly at the realm of the biological should a child be
conceived. The economic and emotional value of the imagined donor varies
depending upon the traits he is thought to possess. Second, the recipient may, at
some point, have some sort of contact with the semen ‘donor’ who often has the
option of entering into a social relationship with the offspring as the child’s
biological father, albeit a limited one. Thus there is the possibility for a delayed
gift/counter-gift interaction that is not usually present in the circulation of
commodities. Third, the notion of semen as commodity is further confused by the
fact that the recipients themselves perceive the donor as having given them a
precious ‘gift’ (a child, or even the potential to have a child), which the women
happened to have paid for. Semen transactions, then, further confuse the
Adoption parallels – and extends – these same issues; only here actual children
are the commodities rather than the genetic material that can result in a child.
Zelizer (1985) analyzes the interactions between market or price, and personal
and moral values in reference to shifting cultural interpretations of childhood
since the Industrial Revolution – a time when the economic value of a child’s
contribution to the household disappeared, but the emotional value of the child
increased. In regard to adoption, and a black market in babies, she discusses a
contradiction between a cultural system that ‘declared children priceless
emotional assets, and a social arrangement that treated them as cash commodities’
(1985: 201). The social and legal debates surrounding the buying and selling of
babies through adoption agencies and independent agents centered on conﬂicting
themes of the market needing to meet consumer demands, and the moral values
which emphasize parenting as a gift that should be motivated by the altruism of
all parties, not by proﬁt. The child itself – or the potential to create a child – has
an economic value that is based solely on the emotional rewards, not on the
potential to contribute economically to the family.
In discussing the relative value of commodities in economic exchange,
Appadurai argues that politics ‘creates the link between exchange and value’. The
value of property or objects is not inherent in the thing itself, but rather is deter-
mined by the ‘judgment made about them by subjects’. He further argues that
‘commodities, like persons, have social lives’ (1986: 3). But, how is the value of
semen as both gift and commodity determined when the product is not only a
product, but also is something which comes from a person and aids in creating
other persons who will, themselves, be engaged in social relations, and who may
at some point enter into a social relationship with the biological donor who sired
them? Furthermore, how is the value of semen connected to the judgments
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subjects make about what constitutes a quality person? This comes down to the
question of what is the phenomenology of exchange when the commodity that is
purchased enters into and becomes part of one’s body, and eventually becomes
another person, with his/her own social history. As Marx notes, commodities are
transformed through the process of exchange, using the example that wood is
transformed into a table by the person who purchases it (1906: 82). With the
exchange of semen this is no less true: with seminal exchange the gamete can be
transformed by the woman who purchases it into a child. The fact that the
product is a child, a person, rather than a material object like a table, makes the
signiﬁcance of social relations in this form of commodity exchange more
The signiﬁcance of social relations in semen exchange is quite complex. Typi-
cally, unless it is a woman using a known donor, the exchange of semen is between
donor and sperm bank, and sperm bank and recipient. The buyer and the seller of
the product are not immediately involved in the act of exchange with one another.
Despite the physical distance between the seller and the purchaser, purchased
semen is often perceived as a very intimate ‘gift’ for the women who have bought
it, and the donor is perceived as having given the woman the ‘gift of life’, a child.
Women express their unending gratitude for this man whom they have never met
because he gave them something they consider precious. Despite the fact that
semen transactions are commodity-mediated exchanges, women typically
perceive this exchange as a type of gifting, and fantasize about how alliances with
the donor could be forged in the future, when the child reaches the age at which
a donor’s identity may be released. For example, one informant told me how she
often had fantasies that she would get pregnant by her donor and would day-
dream about standing with her mythical daughter and her mythical donor,
together at her mythical daughter’s graduation. Thus the possibility for social
interaction through gift exchange is both delayed and is the subject of fantasy and
Despite the commodity-quality of semen, there exists a strong motivation to
emphasize its value as a purely altruistically given gift among individual women
who purchase it, as well as among sperm-bank representatives. For women, the
altruistic character of the donor is important. It gives them something positive to
tell their children about the man who helped to make their lives possible. Being
able to tell one’s child that their donor wanted to help people have families has
much greater emotional value than having to tell them that their donor needed the
money. Hence, when women decide on a donor they often look for cues in the
donor proﬁles that will tell them that the donor was motivated – at least partially
– by a desire to help others.
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The donation/sale of semen by the donor to the repository is on a continuum.
Below, I will focus on the perceptions of donor altruism and payment of money
for semen in three sperm repositories where I conducted ﬁeldwork: The Sperm
Bank of California (SBC), Rainbow Flag Health Services (RF) and Repository for
Germinal Choice (RGC).
Transacting Semen: Three Sperm Repositories
Semen donors receive ﬁnancial remuneration to varying degrees. Some reposito-
ries do not pay their donors at all; some offer very little and deﬁne payment in
terms of reimbursing donors for their time and trouble; and some pay donors
between $40 and $50 per semen sample. In all of these repositories – whether
donors were paid or not – the idea of ﬁnancially compensating a donor for
providing semen is not neutral. I will now explore the varying degrees to which
semen is donated/sold, and how sperm repository representatives interpret the
meaning of exchanging money for human gametes.
The Sperm Bank of California
The Sperm Bank of California (SBC) was founded in 1982 by Barbara Raboy, and
was the ﬁrst to cater to single women and lesbians, as well as to offer donor iden-
tity release. Their mission is to ‘challenge fundamental prejudices and exclusion-
ary policies of the sperm banking and medical communities’ (Sperm Bank of
California, 1991 Annual Report). They were founded on the principle of ‘repro-
ductive freedom for all individuals regardless of marital status, sexual preferences,
age, race, or religion’ (SBC, 1991 Annual Report: 2). Their initial fees include a
$400 application fee, plus approximately $108 per vial.
I originally interviewed Barbara, a feminist, and founder of the Sperm Bank of
California (SBC), in 1991. At that time the SBC was housed in Oakland, Cali-
fornia, in an ofﬁce within an old Victorian-style building, with hardwood ﬂoors
and a community women’s clinic ambiance. It has since moved to a relatively new
ofﬁce building in Berkeley, with a buzzer for entry. The SBC is also now a
subsidiary of ‘Reproductive Technologies, Inc.’. The environment now is much
more clinical and ‘professional-looking’, with more distinct ofﬁces and private
rooms, where women wait to pick up their orders.
Sperm-banking, here, is considered to be a business, which is driven by
consumer demand. For example, as Barbara states:
One thing that I ﬁnd very interesting is the strong inﬂuence on how technology gets presented
in our society as the people who are using it. Our approach is, you pay attention to your users
and they’re going to drive the technology.
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Barbara addresses a very important point here: that it is the users – the consumers
– who ultimately determine the ways in which a technology is going to be util-
ized. The use of technology is sustained by, and responds to, the market and
consumer demand. With sperm-banking, then, even though the original intended
market was infertile, heterosexual, married couples, it has become increasingly
popular among single women and lesbian couples who don’t have regular access
Like many other sperm repositories, donors here are paid for their time and
their ‘donations’. A paid sperm bank donor can either be ‘unknown anonymous’
or ‘unknown identity release’, which means that the donor agrees to have his
identity released to the offspring when the offspring reaches a certain age (usually
18). In fact, SBC was the ﬁrst sperm bank to offer donor identity release, an
option that several other repositories now offer.
The term ‘donor’, however, is really not accurate in reference to those who are
paid for their contributions, because their semen is not donated – it is sold. Paid
donors are often recruited through college newspapers. For example, refer again
to the ad in a campus newspaper mentioned at the beginning of the article. This
advertisement speciﬁcally connects monetary reward for one aspect of male sexu-
ality which produces a certain product – semen. Paid donors become part of a
market in which their ability to bring themselves to climax produces a commodity
which is bought and sold, thereby linking their sexuality to the market for genetic
material. In regard to paying donors Barbara explained, during our 1991 inter-
I think most men do this for the money – we have a recession to thank for that. I think all the
time the rationale changes, but that is a key piece in this. Still, you get a sense from this process
that there are major commitments involved as a donor and that they can’t take it lightly as ‘just
a job’. Because we constantly need updated information from them and ongoing blood tests, so
it’s pretty involved. They deserve to be compensated for that. We pay donors on a sliding scale.
The highest rate is $40–$50 for each specimen. It’s up to the men how much they want to get
paid. Some donors don’t want to be paid at all, some want a lot. For some guys, they really have
a hard time with the concept of selling sperm – that’s not why they’re doing it – but many of
them still need the money.
Although the paid donor is primarily motivated by cash reward – approxi-
mately $50 per specimen – they typically express other factors in their decision to
become donors as well; for example, wanting to help other people have children,
a secondary altruism. The donors who express such ‘higher reasons’ for becom-
ing donors are thought to have more value than those who are ‘just in it for the
money’. A ‘good donor,’ according to SBC representatives, is someone who is
committed, who has thought the process through, and is doing it for ‘altruistic’
as well as monetary reasons.
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Many donors take on a semi-professional status. That is, they make regular
donations (numerous times a month) for usually at least a year-long commitment.
These usually enter into a long-term relationship with the sperm bank – keeping
them abreast of things that might affect the quality of their semen. Barbara told
me she works to gain this kind of trust and commitment from her donors, as well
as her clients:
You keep seeing the same donors over and over again. One gentleman, for example, has been
with us and he’s due for his annual work-up, so he’s going to go see our physician for his
physical. This is exactly what you want with your donors because you develop this kind of
partnership with them over time and you get to know them really well.
This notion of building a partnership or a relationship with the donors was
present at all the sperm banks where I conducted interviews. The notion that
repository representatives must be able to ‘get to know’ their donors, to build a
relationship with them, to be able to trust them – to have a commitment from them
– is considered extremely important to the smooth operation of the repository, as
well as in establishing trust in the man providing his semen. Because semen, as a
commodity, also contains potential risk, for example of passing on sexually trans-
mitted as well as genetic diseases, the ability to trust donors is of utmost import-
ance. Indeed, one sperm bank, California Cryobank, was recently sued by a
recipient couple for providing semen which carried a genetically linked kidney
disease which was transmitted to their daughter (Johnson v. California Cryobank).
Some in the sperm-banking industry feel that a paid donor has a vested inter-
est in concealing personal information; for example, their health or sexual prac-
tices, or family history of genetic diseases. Screening of donors is important to
guarantee a lower level of risk for both the recipient and the impending offspring.
Among sperm repositories that pay their donors, it is thought that these screen-
ing procedures are enough to ensure the product’s safety.
Rainbow Flag Health Services
Housed in an old Victorian building in Oakland, California, Rainbow Flag (RF),
founded in 1995, is a sperm bank serving the lesbian/gay community. It has
completely open policies regarding donor identity release when the offspring
reaches 3 months old, and encourages contact between the donor and his
offspring. Their founding goal is to build a ‘stronger Lesbian and Gay community
by assisting Lesbians and Gay Men to bring children into their families’.
Rainbow Flag provides minimal payment to voluntary donors. This form of
ﬁnancial reward is not viewed as payment per se, but is seen as reimbursement for
the time, inconvenience and ‘labor’ expended by the donor to produce the
product. As Leland, the founder, explains:
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When you pay a donor you get into the whole thing about what is the morality about paying
someone for their reproductive tissues. Why is that different than paying someone to donate a
kidney, for example? Now I do pay my donors, but it’s a very small amount and it’s primarily
a stipend for their inconvenience in terms of getting here. It’s a maximum of $200 which comes
at the end of the program. They come here and they give all these donations and they go through
physical exams and have all this blood drawn, they get poked and prodded and six months later
they come back and get their blood drawn again and after that then they get their $200. For a
lot of them that travel signiﬁcant distances they’re clearly not in it for the money.
Leland expresses the notion that there is a limit to what a donor can be paid and
still not be ‘in it for the money’ – still be a legitimate donor, rather than someone
who exploits his own genetic material for ﬁnancial gain (although, he fails to point
out that he, in not paying his donors, thereby increases his proﬁts from the sale
of their semen). Furthermore, this informant mentions that if a donor is getting
paid for their product that he has a vested interest in lying about any diseases he
may carry. For this repository, ﬁnancial compensation of donors is considered to
undermine the relationship of trust seen as necessary between donors and sperm
banks. Furthermore, this informant mentions that to pay donors for their semen
is unethical, like selling a kidney.
Leland further makes the connection between ﬁnancial remuneration and a
lack of trust:
Most sperm banks don’t have very good controls on their own system because if you’re a sperm
donor and you’re being paid $50 a shot you have a ﬁnancial interest. So what if your family is
rife with diabetes or heart disease? You lie, you say, ‘I have none of that in my family’, and no
one is ever going to ﬁnd out. Well, if my guys lie to me, they’re going to meet this woman and
if they ﬁnd out that their child has a genetic disorder, and therefore the donor might too, they
have been defrauded and that would probably be actionable. So, actually I have better controls
on making sure that my guys are honest than the rest of the industry does.
Leland thus equates non-compensation of donors with trust, and having better
control over his donors. For him, payment of money for semen makes the entire
process suspect. Although, and this is an important point, many men ﬁnd the
genetic payoff – and the opportunity to have children involved in their lives – to
be at least equally as important as ﬁnancial compensation. This desire for social
and genetic continuance can also be motivation enough to lie about one’s medical
history, despite the fact that they will eventually get to know their offspring and
his/her mother. When donating, men don’t usually think of the possibility that
they will pass negative traits on to their children. For example, one informant,
who deﬁnes himself as bi-polar (manic-depressive), is a known donor. When I
asked him if he was concerned about his offspring being bi-polar he stated:
That really wasn’t a concern of mine when I agreed to be a donor. I don’t even really see being
bi-polar as being that much of a problem, or any reason not to have kids. It’s pretty much
managed with medication. When I’m having an episode, it just makes life more colorful.
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For this donor, being bi-polar was not enough of a problem, despite its heritabil-
ity, to be a reason to not have children. Likewise, sperm bank donors with a variety
of disorders in their medical histories – including cancer, diabetes, heart disease,
alcoholism, etc. – do not usually perceive these afﬂictions as having enough of an
impact on their lives to warrant not reproducing. Furthermore, many men may be
carriers of genetic diseases of which they are not aware, and which are not
routinely screened for at sperm repositories, unless they are predisposed to genetic
ailments because of their ethnicity (for example Jews and Tay Sachs disease, or
African-Americans and Sickle Cell Anemia). Thus, Leland’s perception that he has
‘better controls’ over his donors does not appear to be accurate.
The Hermann J. Mueller Repository for Germinal Choice
Robert Graham founded Herman J. Mueller Repository for Germinal Choice
(RGC) in 1980. RGC was originally a joint effort between Hermann Mueller, a
geneticist, and Robert Graham, a businessman. Mueller’s initial idea was to posi-
tively inﬂuence the human gene pool by promoting the reproduction of intelli-
gent, altruistic men, whose semen would be banked until after their death, when
it could truly be decided whether or not they had led exceptional lives. Graham
was going to provide the funding for the project, but Mueller decided to abandon
it because he felt that Graham placed too much emphasis on intelligence and too
little emphasis on altruism in the recruitment of semen donors. Mueller died in
1978, and the repository opened its doors for business in 1980, under the found-
ing of Graham, who initially only recruited Nobel Laureate donors. Graham did,
however, implement the policy that donors were not to be paid for their dona-
tions; for Graham, this was evidence enough of donor altruism.
Robert Graham died in 1997, and for several years the repository was funded
by the Society for the Advancement of Man, and run by Gina, whom I inter-
viewed in 1998. The repository has since ceased operation. Since she was not the
founder, but rather just worked there, her personal philosophies regarding
reproduction were not completely consistent with the founding and operating
principles of the repository. Yet she was still well versed in what those principles
were. The following is her understanding of how the repository was founded and
They started out with the concept that they wanted the ‘best and the brightest’ [donors] that
they could come up with, and they thought that Nobelists would best ﬁt that category. Then
they found that these gentlemen were all older and their sperm was not freezing well, so they
spread out and diversiﬁed. Now their criteria is ‘great health, high IQ, and high achievement’;
now, it’s pretty open in terms of what that means, but it still means we’re recruiting the top 5
percent of our population. Their idea was to encourage the best men in our population to have
more offspring than they normally would have and to give those children the best possible start
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in life. So they heavily screened both the donors and the clients; although, with the clients we’re
a little more ﬂexible . . .
This bank stores and sells the sperm of ‘men in excellent health who in addition
. . . demonstrate great potential. Always these men have high intelligence.’ The
philosophy of this bank is to ‘put more genes from some of our best men into the
human gene pool’, and to ‘give babies the best possible start in life’. As mentioned
above, only married couples, where the woman is under 38 and has written
consent of her husband, may purchase sperm from this bank. The initial costs at
this bank include a $100 application fee, a $200 cryogenic tank fee and a $3000
program fee. These fees include three vials of semen per month for up to six
months. This repository does not serve single women and lesbians.
At the RGC, it is a matter of strict policy that donors are to receive no ﬁnan-
cial compensation. As Robert Graham states in a video-recorded interview:
We absolutely do not pay our donors. That is our policy. Our foundation is trying to ﬁnd
donors who are altruistic, who can be trusted, and who are doing this so they can pass their
good genes down to future generations. We are trying to promote altruism, and believe this can
be passed down through the gene pool.
For this bank, then, the emphasis on altruism and positively inﬂuencing the
human gene pool, would be sullied by the exchange of semen for money.
Donor ‘Altruism’ and Seminal Value
Sperm repository policies regarding paying donors express conﬂicting notions of
what it ‘should’ mean to be a donor, and what are the ‘right reasons’ for donation.
In two repositories where I conducted ﬁeldwork (RF and RGC) there was the
notion that if a man was a donor ‘for the money’ then he had a vested interest in
lying on the intake forms about his health, sexual practices and other issues. At
other repositories, for example the Sperm Bank of California, it was recognized
that the man was providing a service at sometimes great personal sacriﬁce, and
should be ﬁnancially rewarded. Still, the issue between altruism and trust is an
important one. These notions of the commercial = bad versus voluntary = good
are the topic of Titmuss’s treatise on donor blood and are rife in the sperm-
banking industry and among recipients.
In The Gift Relationship (1997), Richard Titmuss provides a comparative
analysis of blood donation in the USA and the United Kingdom, exploring the
role of altruism and gifting of blood vs the marketing and commodiﬁcation of
blood. These arguments are extremely relevant to the discussion of semen dona-
tion, and the perceived tension between those who give it freely versus those who
expect reimbursement for their ‘labor’. According to Titmuss, the anonymous gift
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of blood is the archetype of a pure gift relationship because the donor does not
have any motivation for donating apart from the desire to help others. However,
the question remains whether any gift is driven by pure altruism. For example,
the ‘altruistic’ blood donor may feel personal satisfaction that he or she was being
a good person by virtue of the fact that they donated blood. Thus, personal satis-
faction is the motivation for being a donor, rather than pure altruism. I argue here
that, in the case of semen donation, there is always some form of self-interest
among donors who give it – even when it is given freely and the donor remains
Blood and semen are parallel ﬂuids in many ways: they are both regenerative;
they both can be donated and/or sold; they are both perceived and experienced as
a ‘gift of life’; they can both be stored in ‘banks’ before they are received by recip-
ients; they can also both transmit HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and are thus
subject to numerous testing procedures to ensure ‘safety’ for their recipient; they
both forge some kind of relationship between the donor and recipient – even
though they may never actually meet. Because of their regenerative quality, they
have not fallen under the same strictures as have the donation and sale of human
In the sperm-banking industry this connection between altruistically donated
semen and good, and purchased semen with bad is apparent, but not consistently
articulated. At the SBC, for example, semen donors are paid, but someone who is
doing this ‘just for the money’ is not the ideal. The best donors are considered to
be those who also have some personal reason – aside from monetary – for donat-
ing; for example, if they had a relative who went through infertility or had a baby
through donor insemination, and the donor would like to be able to ‘give that gift
to someone else’. It is realized that most men donate because they are in college
and need the money, yet their reasons should have more meaning than just mone-
tary compensation. This is often a trait that women look for when they choose
donors as well, as they study the donor proﬁles.
Other repositories, for example Rainbow Flag, provide a minimal compensa-
tion for the donor’s ‘inconvenience’, and the Repository for Germinal Choice has
a policy against donor compensation. Both these repositories feel that to compen-
sate donors monetarily would give them a vested interest in lying on their appli-
cations and thus make them less trustworthy as donors and their semen more
risky in terms of genetic or other diseases.
Two of the above repositories have stated that the purchased sample is
‘corrupted’, tainted, not trustworthy. At the SBC, money is considered to be the
main reason why men donate semen, and is not necessarily thought to detract
from the quality of the product; yet, there is still an emphasis on the underlying
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reasons men donate – altruism. This emphasis on altruism – or wanting to help
others out who can’t have children on their own – is perceived to be strongly
connected with the quality of person who donates and, by extension, the quality
of his semen.
These deﬁnitions of altruism are problematic, however – especially since it is
genetic material that is being donated. In The Selﬁsh Gene Richard Dawkins
(1976) argues that there is no true altruism, that all acts that appear altruistic are
actually self-serving in terms of maximizing an organism’s reproductive potential.
Although I ﬁnd ﬂaws in many of Dawkins’s socio-biological arguments – that
organisms can be reduced to mere containers attempting to spread their genetic
material – with regard to sperm donation, alas, he may be right.
At one sperm repository where donors do receive monetary compensation,
donors are asked their reasons for wanting to become a sperm donor on the intake
forms. Most of these responses mention the need for money, along with a felt need
to pass on one’s genetic material (a few also mention the desire to help other
families because they know someone who had problems with infertility). Typical
responses to this question of ‘Why donate?’ are: ‘To be blunt, because it pays. . . .
A far more minor reason is my view on eugenics. I think I have good genes and I
want to spread them around as widely as possible.’ Another donor states: ‘I have
excellent genetics and right now I need to pass them on.’ And yet another donor
provides a message to the recipient(s): ‘I hope you enjoy my genes as much as I
have.’ All of these donors express the desire to spread their genes – to maximize
their reproductive ﬁtness, so to speak. The obvious oversight, here, is that this
donor is not being cloned, but rather any child produced is merely a combination
50 percent of the donor’s genetic material along with the mother’s 50 percent.
Furthermore, the entire quest for ‘altruistically’ motivated donors among sperm
banks is misplaced: any transaction involving the genetic continuation of an indi-
vidual through his/her offspring is automatically motivated by a certain degree of
egocentrism. Indeed, most of the men I have interviewed have stated that they
would still donate even if they were not paid. One man stated: ‘Having been a
semen donor took the pressure off of me. I never really saw myself parenting chil-
dren, but now I know I’ve sort of done my part to keep my genes out there.’
Even if ﬁnancial incentive is removed from transacting semen, the genetic
incentive can still be powerful enough to render the potential donor as untrust-
worthy, should he be the type of person who would lie about his family medical
history, alcohol or drug use, sexual practices and so on. These motivations for
ﬁnancial and genetic payoff are not grounded in altruism. Even donors who do
express altruistic motivations such as wanting to help others have children still
express secondary motivations of wanting to spread their genetic material.
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Furthermore, sperm banks that have policies against paying their donors, or
paying them minimal amounts, are also suspect in that the less they pay their
donors, the more money they make when they sell the product that they got for
a minimal amount of money or no money at all. Consequently, the search for
‘altruistic’ donors boils down to a search for men who ﬁnd the genetic incentive
to be more signiﬁcant than ﬁnancial incentives.
There are essentially two types of voluntary donors: those who donate their
sperm at sperm banks with no ﬁnancial compensation, and ‘known’ donors that
an individual woman (or lesbian couple) may ask to help her have a child. Volun-
tary sperm bank donors and known donors are very different: at the sperm bank,
the donor’s identity will usually not be released, so the donor’s motivation is more
likely to be increase the spread of his genes. Known donors, however, often enter
into a social relationship with the woman and her child, but have no legal rights
as fathers. Thus the known donor is often motivated by social as well as genetic
At some sperm repositories donors have the option to have their identity
released when the offspring reaches a certain age, usually 18. Two repositories
where I conducted ﬁeldwork, Rainbow Flag (RF) and the Sperm Bank of Cali-
fornia (SBC), both offer identity release of the donors; although, at RF it is
mandatory when the offspring reaches 3 months of age, and at SBC it is optional
for donors to have their identity released when the child reaches 18. If a donor
agrees to identity release, he cannot change his mind, however. Many other repos-
itories, including the Repository for Germinal Choice, another sperm bank where
I conducted ﬁeldwork, prohibit the release of donor identities and do not offer
this as an option.
Among the repositories that do offer this option, ‘identity release’ donors are
in much higher demand than those who wish to remain anonymous. Most recip-
ients want their offspring at least to have the opportunity to be able to seek out
their donors should they so choose. It is also felt among many women that iden-
tity release donors have thought the process through more deeply and have taken
greater personal responsibility in regard to the offspring their sperm produces.
Whether or not (or how much) a donor is paid has no impact on the decision to
become an identity release donor; that is, donors do not receive more money if
they agree to have their identity released. However, at one repository in San Fran-
cisco identity release semen costs approximately $25 more per vial than non-iden-
tity release because of higher demand. The value of semen, then, is subject to the
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laws of supply and demand. Further, identity release becomes a sort of secondary
commodity. Women are more likely to purchase the semen of men who leave the
option open for future contact.
‘Ethnic Semen’ and Expanding Proﬁts
Donor intelligence, donor altruism and, in some repositories, the willingness to
be an identity release donor all affect the perceived value of semen among both
clients and sperm bank personnel. Ethnicity can also determine the value of semen
for sperm repositories with a consumer proﬁle where ethnic diversity is present.
Many repositories in the San Francisco Bay Area desire to appeal to an ethnically
diverse market, by expanding the ethnic pool of their donors. It is considered that
the more ethnic choices one has represented in the donor pool, the higher the
chances for increased proﬁts. The Repository for Germinal Choice is not
concerned with having a broad range of ethnic options, promoting instead, the
genetic reproduction of primarily Caucasian, upper middle-class, highly educated
scientists. Consequently, their donor pool is a comparatively homogeneous
group, as are their clients. The SBC and RF, however, feel a need to recruit donors
who are ethnically diverse, often relaxing certain standards, for example the
minimum height requirement which is usually around 5 foot 9 inches for
Caucasian donors, for donors of varying ethnicities. This, again, has to do with
the politics, policies and goals of the individual founders of these banks, as well
as higher consumer demand in the Bay Area for ‘ethnic sperm’.
Leland, founder of Rainbow Flag Health Services, speciﬁcally made the
connection between ‘ethnic sperm’ and proﬁt. He states:
We have one Chinese donor, everyone else is white. If I could ﬁnd African-American or African
donors I would be happy as a clam and I’d be making a lot more money. There’s a lot of African-
American lesbians who are looking for African-American donors, but can’t ﬁnd any.... Unfor-
tunately there has been a large number of calls over the years from African-American
heterosexual men who are interested in being donors primarily for money, and I turn them away
because we don’t pay, and some of them ask pretty rude questions like, ‘Are there any women
there to help you have sex?’. . . We also don’t have any Jewish sperm, which is a shame because
there are a lot of Jewish lesbians who would love to have Jewish sperm.
It is interesting that there is such a high demand for Jewish sperm donors in Bay
Area sperm banks. As Susan Kahn (1996) demonstrates, because of strict prohi-
bitions against masturbation for Jewish men, in Israel non-Jewish sperm is ﬂown
from the United States for insemination of Jewish women. Because Jewish iden-
tity is matrilineally located, it is the womb that determines the Jewishness of the
child. If a child’s ethnic/religious identity is traced through the mother, why
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08 tober (jk/d) 9/1/02 1:40 pm Page 152
would there be such a high demand for Jewish sperm in sperm banks and among
All Bay Area sperm bank representatives discussed their desires to recruit
greater numbers of ethnic – including Jewish – donors, and have expressed
concern and frustration over the lack of ethnic men who are eligible to become
donors. This quest for ethnic sperm is in part to better meet consumer demand;
women desire children who share their own (or their partner’s) ethnic identity.
Furthermore, sperm banks with a broader selection of ethnic donors will also
potentially enjoy higher proﬁts. Thus ethnicity can be symbolically located (or,
as in the case of Israeli Jews, dis-located) within the sperm cell, and is thereby
assigned economic and emotional value in reproductive transactions.
What is perceived to reside in the sperm? And, how do these notions of semen
affect the ways in which donors are recruited and their products marketed/trans-
acted? I have demonstrated how the social value of altruism is translated as being
intrinsic to the donor (and hence his sperm), and therefore how widely shared
social values are translated into economic value. The underlying philosophies
behind the founding of two of the sperm banks mentioned here are that altruism,
or any number of other socially desirable characteristics, are passed from the
sperm to the offspring, and that these traits will favorably affect the social world.
These fantasies about what sperm is, and about what sperm passes on, are engaged
in by both repository personnel and founders, and by the women who purchase
semen in order to have a child.
The commodiﬁcation and gifting of semen – a transmitter of genetic material
– is a complex process. Donors who receive ﬁnancial compensation for their
sperm are part of a process of exchange in which semen ﬂows in and out of the
sperm banks in exchange for money. This exchange of money for semen appears
to be the primary motivation for becoming a donor. Secondary motivations
include wanting to pass down their genes and wanting to help other people. Of
course, wanting to help others cannot be viewed as pure altruism because of the
underlying motivations to enhance one’s reproductive ﬁtness. The reward for
men involved in these transactions, then, is threefold: money, passing down one’s
genes and desire to help others.
Reproductive Workers and the Market in Gametes
Many feminist theorists of the 1970s suggest a link between married, heterosexual
sex as a form of reproductive labor, which subordinates women to men in patri-
archal societies (Firestone, 1970; Leacock, 1981; Rubin, 1975; Sacks, 1975). Arlie
Hochschild’s (1983) discussion of ‘emotional labor’ is a gendered redeﬁnition of
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what constitutes work, attempting to demonstrate the ‘exchange value’ of
women’s emotional labor in relation to other forms of labor. More recent litera-
ture on the sex industry has explored how sex work is an income-generating form
of labor for women or men, which is highly globalized and capitalized (Allison,
1994; Kempadoo, 1998).
By focusing primarily on the reproductive work of men, rather than women,
I am attempting to provide a different slant on feminist critiques regarding the
commodiﬁcation and objectiﬁcation of the female body. Here I propose that
reproductive technologies have evoked a different form of body work – which
may or may not include some form of sex or pleasure – in which the procreative
aspects of the male body become commodiﬁed in ways that parallel sex for proﬁt.
Here, the notion of reproductive labor takes on a new meaning and a different
level of monetary value than when traditionally applied to female reproductive
and sexual labor.
Men involved in the selling of their semen are involved in a type of work
involving the body, in which their ability to bring themselves to climax results in
increased ﬁnancial (or social or genetic) opportunities. Men who work as sperm
donors can make enough money to pay their rent or other expenses. Indeed, one
paid donor (at a repository not mentioned in this article) told me he was a sperm
donor because he ‘wanted to buy a motorcycle’. Thus, he was exchanging one
type of commodity for another. This donor also stated that being a donor was
something he looked forward to every week, and that if he wasn’t a sperm donor
he would probably be much more interested in ﬁnding a girlfriend. Although he
experienced sperm donation as clinical – rather than as sexual or erotic – his
sexual needs were still taken care of and he received money in exchange for his
‘Reproductive work’ and ‘sex work’ are both forms of labor involving the
body, where the body and/or what it produces have a market value. I am using
this notion of ‘reproductive work’ as a conceptual category in order to think
about the commodiﬁcation of bodily practices and substances, and possible paral-
lels with the sex industry. Semen donors, to my knowledge, do not refer to them-
selves as ‘reproductive workers’ in the sense that prostitutes do often call
themselves ‘sex workers’. Furthermore, egg donors and surrogate mothers may
be even further removed from the concept by virtue of the fact that their dona-
tions typically involve medical intrusion rather than any form of sexual pleasure.
However, I think the idea is still useful in theorizing the ways in which people’s
bodies become sites of work, as well as for thinking about new ways in which sex
and reproduction are linked, despite the fact that sex is not necessarily procreative
and procreation is not necessarily achieved through heterosexual sex.
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08 tober (jk/d) 9/1/02 1:40 pm Page 154
Like workers in the sex industry, reproductive workers submit their bodies to
a variety of intrusions. Men are subjected to various tests of their semen, urine,
urethral cultures and blood, and agree to a variety of physical examinations. For
women who sell ova, this invasion of bodily boundaries is even more profound.
They, too, must agree to physical examinations including pelvic exams, medical
tests for sexually transmitted diseases, etc., and, if accepted, are further subject to
hormonal regulation and ‘follicle stimulation’ and extraction. I would now like to
turn to a comparison of male and female ‘reproductive workers’ and how they are
presented in particular ways in order to appeal to the consumer.
Information technologies, especially the Internet, provide a forum in which the
commodity quality of semen can be viewed directly. This is an example of what
Lury calls a ‘prosthetic culture’ (1998), where visual technologies produce stra-
tegic ‘techniques of the self’ in areas that previously seemed immutable. Web
pages for infertility clinics, sperm repositories, egg banks and (what I will call)
‘private gamete brokers’ provide an interesting tool for analyzing the complexity
of American cultural ideologies and practices surrounding individuals
who sell their reproductive services. For example, one web page
(www.fertilityoptions.com) offers sample portraits of would-be semen and egg
donors, and surrogate mothers.
The way in which these reproductive workers
are presented provides insight into the values in the market for these gamete
providers and laborers, and also shows how different types of people are strate-
gically targeted for speciﬁc reproductive tasks. The semen donor – an athletic,
sandy-haired, blue-eyed, college graduate; the egg donor – a pretty, young mother
of two, with a college education and a personal history of ‘wanting to help other
people’; the surrogate – a woman in her mid-30s, slightly plump, stay-at-home
mother of three, likes to bake cookies, enjoys being pregnant and wants to help
infertile couples. The ways in which these individuals are portrayed provide
insight into the desired traits for a carrier of the genetic material for one’s
offspring as opposed to the type of person who would be the carrier of a child but
not its genetic parent. Such examples demonstrate the dichotomy between what
is thought to be present in the genetic material of the donor versus what proper-
ties are required in the mind and body of the woman who is merely the container,
or vessel of one’s own genetic material.
In all of the proﬁles provided on these sample reproductive workers, altruism
appears as a common theme in terms of the motivation for their work. The physi-
cal characteristics were more ﬂexible, but the focus on altruistic motivation for
their services was uniform, despite the fact that money was being exchanged for
their labor. This focus on altruism is an attempt to remove such ‘donations’ from
the realm of market transactions in order to imbue them with a higher meaning.
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This is an example of what Marx calls the transcendent quality of a commodity
The antithesis of redeﬁning commodity as gift can be found in a rather
grotesque example whereby the commodity quality of sperm/ova is intensiﬁed.
For example, www.ronsangels.com presents a forum in which sperm and ova are
put up for auction, starting at $15,000 and going up to $150,000. Here, the focus
is on beauty, where ‘models’ gifted with ‘elite’ gametes can sell their products to
the highest bidder, because beauty – an ‘American cultural value’ – comes at a
price. In the photographs at this website, sexuality is heightened to the point
where it is difﬁcult to tell whether it is sex or gametes that is being sold. This is
even further confused by the fact that the photographer/broker for these models
and their gametes also provides links to several soft-core pornography sites. This
example demonstrates the sometimes blurred divide between the reproductive
industry and the sex industry.
The differences in the intensity of male and female reproductive labor are
recognized by the gamete industry; hence, ovum donors are typically paid several
for a single donation of multiple eggs, with extra ﬁnancial
incentives offered to East Indian and Asian women whose eggs are in high
demand. Sperm donors who receive compensation are paid much less for each
donation, usually around $40–$50 per sample. However, semen donors can
donate once or twice a week, potentially earning up to $400 per month, or $4800
per year. Again, certain ethnic groups are considered to be in higher demand than
others and may receive extra ﬁnancial incentives. Many repositories will even
relax certain minimum standards in order to recruit ethnically diverse donors; for
example, dropping the minimum height requirement to 5 foot 5 inches for Asian
or Hispanic donors.
The connection between sex work and sperm donation is actually quite
complicated. As I was researching sperm banks on the Internet, one site came up
that made a rather blatant connection between donor sexuality and the sex indus-
try (www.masturbationparadise.com/banks.shtml). This page provided some
informational links for semen donors, but primarily furnished links to a variety
of pornographic web sites, including ‘live females’ performing sex acts over the
Internet and other sexual fantasies including: teens, black women, Asian women,
lesbians, gay men, S & M, etc. This site also included alleged hidden-camera
pictures of a man masturbating/working in a ‘masturbation room’ at a ‘sperm
bank.’ Here, the sperm bank becomes the imagined site of voyeuristic/exhibi-
tionist masturbation fantasies, in which the ‘sperm donor’ is the eroticized
subject. Lower on the page it states: ‘Remember, you can help other people by
giving sperm!’ And, ‘If you already have experiences visiting a sperm bank, please
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08 tober (jk/d) 9/1/02 1:40 pm Page 156
feel free to (anonymously) tell about it.’ Thus men’s sperm bank stories also
become the topic of sexual fantasy, but the hint of altruism, of helping others, is
still brought to the fore. I do not know to what degree this web site is accessed
by actual semen donors, but here the connection between producing semen and
the sex industry is made explicit, focusing both on the more traditional lines of
women as the focal point of erotic labor, as well as new forms of fantasy where
the process of sperm donation itself is eroticized.
In regard to the international trade in organs, Nancy Scheper-Hughes has
discussed how the poor are exploited, selling organs to the wealthy (2000). With
the sale of human gametes, it is the intellectually privileged (that is, usually
university educated) that are recruited; generally, this class of individual is
temporarily economically disadvantaged and needs to earn extra income to help
put themselves through school. Non-compensated donors are usually more privi-
leged, for example the Repository for Germinal Choice’s ‘scientists’. Surrogates
whose bodies are temporarily used, but whose gametes are not involved in the
reproduction of children, are typically working class (see Roberts, 1998). This
points to a ‘class structure’ of the reproductive industry, in which individuals are
ranked and considered appropriate for different reproductive tasks.
The cultural values of altruism attempt to decommodify the commodity – to
remove semen from its exchange as a marketable product and redeﬁne it as gift.
However, representations of reproductive workers in businesses involved in
selling their services – which accentuate donor sexuality and exchange of money
for a product – make the argument that gametes are altruistically given gifts
untenable. This rhetoric emphasizing donor altruism is an attempt to imbue
sperm donation with a higher moral and emotional value, and to remove these
donations from the self-serving commodity culture prevalent in the USA. This is
problematic on a deep cultural level, for what is seen as being more self-serving
than masturbation – especially for money? Hence, a problem arises in conceptu-
alizing sperm donation: Is it an altruistically given gift standing above commodity
culture, or is it a commodity which is bought, sold and fetishized? In sperm dona-
tion, I argue, ‘altruism’ or ‘gifting’ becomes a selling point, a secondary
Studying the linkages between cultural values, lay interpretations of genetics
and the market for genetic material is essential to an understanding of how sperm
repositories recruit and screen potential donors, donor motivations, and how
women choose donors for their offspring and construct the identities of the
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08 tober (jk/d) 9/1/02 1:40 pm Page 157
donors they have chosen. Screening procedures within the sperm-banking indus-
try reﬂect widely held cultural assumptions surrounding who is and is not suited
to reproduce, or, to get more microscopic, which ‘genes’ – and I use the term
loosely here – are/are not suited for replication.
Numerous parallels can be drawn between semen donation and the entire
industry in body parts – organs, blood, gametes, etc. – especially in regard to the
comparative value assigned to that which is donated, as opposed to that which is
sold, as well as the perceptions of what makes a ‘good’ donor. Medical anthro-
pologists conducting research on organ donation, for example, have pointed out
the importance of anonymous altruism among organ donors for recipients and
their families, acknowledging the organ as ‘gift of life’ (Sharp, 1995). This rhetoric
of ‘altruism’ is rife within the sperm-banking industry as well, and affects the
selection and screening of donors by both sperm banks and recipients. Similar
euphemisms of semen as ‘gift of life’ abound among women who have borne chil-
dren of donor sperm.
Although many in the sperm-banking industry contend that men who receive
money for sperm are more likely to lie about their health and sexual practices,
they fail to recognize that men may have many complicated reasons for donating
sperm – that the rewards of genetic continuation and establishing relationships
with children without having to assume responsibility can be even more profound
than ﬁnancial compensation. Thus the perceived value and trust in ‘altruistically
donated’ sperm is misplaced. In semen transactions, true altruism cannot exist.
I would like to thank Gay Becker, Lawrence Cohen and Nancy Scheper-Hughes for their comments on earlier
versions of this article. I would also like to thank the Social Science Research Council Sexuality Research Fellowship
Program for generous post-doctoral support. Of course, any errors contained within this article are exclusively those
of the author.
This paper is based on two phases of ﬁeldwork conducted between 1991 and1998, and 1999 and 2001. During the
ﬁrst phase of ﬁeldwork I interviewed representatives from sperm repositories, collected data from sperm bank ﬁles,
and interviewed 15 single women and 15 lesbian couples attempting motherhood via donor insemination. From 1999
to 2001, I interviewed 15 donors regarding their motivations and experiences, and re-visited many of my previous
1. This article only addresses transactions involving donor sperm through sperm banks. Women (especially single
women and lesbian couples) also often enter into other arrangements with known donors in which there is usually no
payment for semen. In these cases, the donor usually sees himself as helping out a friend, with the added beneﬁt of
having a child whose life he can be involved in without the responsibilities of traditional fatherhood. Being a known
donor is often considered an attractive option for gay men who want to have children in their lives.
2. There is a distinction between sperm and semen. Sperm refers to the actual sperm cells contained within the
ejaculate, or semen. Although it is ultimately the sperm cell that is required for fertilizing an egg, and thus producing
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08 tober (jk/d) 9/1/02 1:40 pm Page 158
a pregnancy, it is semen (a ﬂuid containing millions of sperm cells) that is collected, purchased, frozen, sold, thawed
and inserted. The sperm is the cell that passes on the DNA of the biological father to the offspring. Thus, when
speaking of donor traits that are perceived to be heritable, I will use the term sperm. When speaking of the transac-
tions involved in the buying or selling of the ﬂuid containing sperm, I will use the term semen.
3. For more on surrogacy and egg donation see Roberts (1998).
4. I actually saw one advertisement in the Daily Cal (November 1998), a UC Berkeley student newspaper, offering
up to $25,000 for the donated eggs of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, university-educated woman, under the age of 30.
Since then there have been numerous well-publicized advertisements attempting to recruit ‘Ivy League Eggs’, offering
upwards of $50,000.
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Diane Tober received her joint PhD in Medical Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley
and the University of California, San Francisco. She is now a Post-Doctoral Fellow through the Social
Science Research Council Sexuality Research Fellowship Program, and is hosted by the University of
California, Berkeley, Department of Anthropology. She has been conducting research on infertility and
donor insemination since 1991. She is currently working on completing her book Romancing the
Sperm: The Screening and Making of Alternative American Families.
Body and Society
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