When I was between gigs not that long ago, a friend joked that I should donate my sperm. I assumed this idea to be about as successful as the joke about it was — I didn’t laugh — but a continued lack of career opportunities, the Illinois state budget crisis and a savage curiosity led me to get screened for potential donation. My friend’s joke also evoked an image of abundant progeny, with countless Mini Me’s running through the world, doing countless Mini Me things — a thought that, in retrospect, stresses me out so much that I may begin to wear a condom even when I pee.
What I stumbled into through my brief experience with sperm donation, however, was far from more fear about over fertilizing the Earth with myself: It was a series of lessons about the worthlessness of the modern male seed. In our world, the very real and not fantastical one, recent and large-scoped studies have shown sperm is increasingly ineffective. Thus, men looking to make a buck off of theirs are in possession of far more dirt than gold.
But that’s the moral of the story, let’s get back to the beginning: The nearest facility I could find was the Midwest Sperm Bank in west suburban Chicago. It sits across the street from a public high school whose mascot is the Trojan. I called the facility and talked to Joanne, their fertility expert. In a weirdly amused tone, Joanne told me that the bank offers $25 per ejaculation, with an extra $50 “on the back end” if the sperm ended up going to use. But these fees would only be granted once a potential donor had been screened and accepted, and if after their acceptance, they agreed to a one-year contract requiring twice-per-week donations.
This, obviously, isn’t a lot of money. So little, in fact, that one can quickly conclude that it isn’t a vocational path. And not only does sperm donation not pay well, but it also requires a thankless monastic streak most virile males wouldn’t care to accept. Or better put, a lot of the semen that exits men isn’t concentrated enough to create human life, so donors are typically required to wait long periods of time between ejaculations to ensure the richness of their jism — 24 hours at baseline, though for some a 36-to 48-hour wait is necessary. “Most of our donors aren’t in relationships,” Joanne told me, not without laughter.
Though I wasn’t in one myself at the time, I was sexually active here and there, but not exactly constantly, amounting to a frequency of bedroom time that was sparse enough to make sperm donation logistically feasible, but only in a vacuum; spontaneity and various emotional variables were at play in these unpredictable activities, which, though not life-defining, were more important to me than anything the sperm bank had to offer.
This began to crystallize for me as I filled out a thick packet of pre-cum paperwork. These pages involved my recent drug history, which involved more drinking than drugging; my exercise habits, a paltry weekly basketball game and daily bike usage; my allergies (none) and/or medical conditions — a mild scoliosis that, as I age, appears to increase in consequence, though I’m medically uninsured and can’t afford to visit a professional to confirm my speculation. (In truth, a large part of my motivation to visit the sperm bank was the hope that I might get a free medical consultation in the screening process, though I never did.) I also was required to fill out my educational and vocational history — a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, a bunch of writing bylines and a glut of adjunct professorial experience.
All of this — and more — to be considered for the role of having to wait longer between sexual releases. Such waiting between ejaculations can hardly be framed as akin to the pleasurable act of “edging” to make cumming more enjoyable. Something you couldn’t do during the act either. In fact, at the bank, I was instructed, by a slew of women, to provide my sample in a quarantined room of the building’s basement.
Despite the pornographic DVDs stacked loosely next to the TV in this room, the berber carpeting, the leather couch with a ripped cushion, wall art that looked straight from Target’s “serene moods” section and a pile of Playboys with a mention of Father John Misty on the cover of the top issue, this room wasn’t a sexually appealing space. I was instructed, to boot, to deposit my life goo into a plastic jar about an inch wide, a target much more precise than I’m used to in the field of autonomous orgasm. The methodology of men dealing with their self-created seed is an under-reported, kaleidoscopic zone of humanity, but I’m confident that no one has ever chosen to discard of theirs in this way unless they had to.
When I transcended the arguably anti-sex vibe of the room for long enough to do my job, independently of any of the proffered materials thank you, I put a lid on the jar and put the jar in a brown paper bag. Then, I washed my hands multiple times. I walked upstairs into the fluorescent-lit medical facility and handed the bag of my sex fluid to a team of nurses, an exchange I thought would make for Seinfeldian awkwardness, but which the nurses appeared quite familiar with.
Next, Joanne led me out of the facility, to a house on the other side of the bank’s parking lot. There was a big backyard. This house, she explained to me, was also owned by the Midwest Sperm Bank. It, she said, was where “the guys” typically went once they got signed into the program and acclimated. The room that I’d just provided my sample in — the room that strove in vain to be chill — was merely there as a preliminary fertility screening zone. I hadn’t earned the privilege of masturbating in the real deposit room.
The satellite house also contained some office space on the first floor where two women managed the bank’s finances, next to a small incubator. While I stood there with three women asking me which famous person I looked like — this question, they said, was part of an important census given to accepted donors — one of “the guys” walked up from the basement and quietly dropped a cup into the incubator before leaving without saying a word.
Such a business — a medical facility aimed at analyzing and appraising the value of all the beating off that happened in the basement next door — is still relatively new in the context of civilized history. Organized sperm collection more or less developed in the mid-20th century, with the first official bank opening in California in 1977. Artificial insemination, itself, has accounts as early as 1884, which apparently went something a little something like this: “The woman was chloroformed, and with a hard rubber syringe some fresh semen from the best-looking member of the class was deposited in the uterus, and the cervix slightly plugged with gauze.” Not to mention, Italian priest and physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani was doing successful artificial insemination experiments with animals a hundred years earlier.
Today, hundreds of thousands of women opt for this mode of pregnancy annually. Among hetero candidates in the modern climate — lesbian couples make up a huge part of the sperm-buying market, with some banks reporting around 40 percent of their clientele as lesbian — less than 10 percent of these sperm recipients are single women who are looking to be mothers. And an even smaller number are taking this route to avoid genetic diseases in a partner.
No, the overwhelming majority of hetero recipients are looking for a solution to male infertility.
In a study published in July, scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York concluded that sperm counts are plummeting in the Western world. Using samples of tens of thousands of men, the study found a halving of sperm concentration over a nearly 40-year period.
These findings point us to yet another chapter in the saga of men projecting their problems onto women. Couples with reproductive struggles have, historically, operated much too often with the assumption of a defective womb, sometimes calling for invasive surgery to correct ostensible issues with female reproductive organs. Female eggs, it should be noted, are a lot more expensive than even a huge amount of potent semen, always netting their donors a few thousand dollars at minimum — it’s also, of course, much more painful to extract an egg from a body than it is to extract a seed. Or more bluntly, no one has ever removed an egg from their body recreationally.
There are no significant conclusions to be drawn from the report, however, regarding why the decline in sperm concentration is happening. Stress and obesity (and thus, according to the law of syllogism, capitalism, the system that seeks profits from the problems it creates) are cited in the study as possible causes for the drop-off in sperm concentration, but no hard bottom line is stated. (When I mentioned this data to my uncle, he blamed cell phone radiation.)
That said, the decrease in fertility isn’t large enough — yet — to cause an actual macro-fertility crisis. People who want to make babies still generally can. If current trends hold, though, couples waiting longer to procreate — so that they can do so with a viable monetary cushion amidst the landscape of aforementioned capitalism — will find it more and more difficult. As such, they will rely more and more on sperm banks to solve their fertility challenges. But if even the sperm banks, flocked to by financially desperate but progressively impotent men, are running low on generative dick tadpoles, one can easily imagine a chaotic Mad Max-like society, in which tribal warfare isn’t over rare water or bullets, but the little useful jizz that’s left.
Maybe in this quite speculative, remarkably thirsty reproductive context, jerking off could feasibly be more profitable than charitable. Economic history has seen stranger developments. But at the moment, becoming a sperm donor is for most people — I’m sure KJ Apa and Timothée Chalamet could be exceptions, if they wanted to be — less remunerative than vlogging or attempting to be a professional athlete. Those committing themselves to this lifestyle must be some combination of terribly desperate, misinformed, or most curiously, really enthusiastic about the idea of becoming a sperm donor.
The Midwest Sperm Bank provides, on its website, a PDF spreadsheet cataloging their 38 current donors. This collection includes some of each of those categories: College students who don’t have money and/or don’t know better; Christian doctors who appear committed to both family and science — Lazzaro Spallanzanis, all of them; and well-off dudes (architects, chiropractors, managers) who seemingly just want to spread their seed, though this is mere informed speculation, and it’s possible that their aims are more benevolent.
Meanwhile, a donor on Reddit, with four purchased samples to his credit, writes, “I like the fact I’m able to help a couple somewhere.” Another (prospective) donor in the same thread proclaims his desire to “raise a mini me army.” Yet another actual sperm submitter affirms the Darwinist-narcissism strain of donorship, claiming, “I’ve got amazing genes. I suppose it’s no surprise that people might elect to go for mine.” Evidence of the clinical man is present, too: “DNA is just information, so honestly it doesn’t bother me.”
The Midwest Sperm Bank’s list doesn’t classify motivation, but it does contain 30 caucasian men, and none on the list are shorter than 5-foot-10 — height, more than race or class, seems to be the most consistent barrier of acceptance in the sperm donor world. “Eugenics at work,” another Redditor suggests, bemoaning that he is too short to donate. Whether or not the Midwest Sperm Bank’s proportion of white donors is what potential sperm recipients are generally looking for, it’s in keeping with industry demographics. The PDF also has columns for hobbies, eye color, bone size, weight, hair texture, hair color, skin tone, religion and ethnic origin of mother.
Upon reviewing this list, I felt an inexplicable need to be included amongst these mostly anonymous men. Even if becoming a donor was a raw deal I wasn’t going to take, I wanted to have the option to belong with them — the Polish firefighter who likes watersports; the Black-Indian soccer and basketball coach; the artist/bartender with an interest in sculpting; the German retail manager who fixes cars for fun. Who could I possibly be, what could my worth be, if I weren’t at least as fertile as the executive level recruiter, a Methodist, who likes rock climbing and jiu-jitsu?
Since the few pages of paperwork I had filled out — the first of more than 40 I’d need to complete, if I ended up submitting myself to the milk farm — asked me to-the-minute when my last ejaculation had been, I was nervous to get my results. I’m a fan of orgasms, both the indie and collaborative kind, and sometimes even rely on them nightly as an aid to my chronic sleeping difficulty. My trip to the bank was early in the morning, however; therefore, it had been less than 12 hours since my last ejaculation.
That’s why I figured it was unlikely that my sample would come out the other end of the incubator with the sperm motility (a fancy word for “speed of swimming motion”) that Joanne needed to see from it. But the dumbest part of my socialization desired a positive reading anyway. I wanted my sample to be so virile that all of my ejaculant, however stressed, strained and pressure-cooked, was robust enough to spur new life.
To be incredibly fertile is obviously not even practical — I would like to be in a zero-risk situation, pregnancy-wise, every time I have sex until I (maybe) decide to have a child. Having less fertile semen is compatible with this vision. But I was socialized within a strain of Irish Catholicism that’s granted me in excess of 30 cousins and 24 aunts and uncles. There’s programming that, no matter how much I disagree with it, is in me. Dispersing my seed as much as possible, even if in defiance of overpopulation, is what I was taught a man is to do. No fooling, as a teenager I was once told by a man in my family — who wasn’t my father, to be clear — to “plant a lot of seeds.”
As it turned out, I learned that I may have to plant more than one, if I ever choose to be a father. Joanne left me a voicemail, delivering the message of my unusable sample in a gentle it-happens-to-lots-of-guys tone. She said I should consider returning with more time between sperm ejections, but only if I really wanted to. Though I had no nearing want to create children, I did want badly enough to know whether I could, and decided to hold off on ejaculation for a long weekend before returning the next Monday. This process was a bit painful, and it affected the way I interacted with at least one person of the opposite sex, giving me a small glimpse into the unrewarding frustrations of a dedicated donor.
When I returned, re-provided and left the bank, I got a call from Joanne the following evening. My sample, this time, was usable. She laughed somewhat gleefully when she noted how long (72 hours) I’d waited between ejaculations to provide the new sample. It’s likely that a smaller window would’ve done, but “most of our guys can’t wait very long,” she said. She reminded me that most of them aren’t in relationships, either. This again caused her to laugh.
I had stressed myself to prove that I could join them, and that I could have orgasms that might matter in the evolutionary sense. But Joanne’s laughter, more than anything, delivered to me the message of how far apart man’s sense of his orgasm’s import is from its increasingly inert reality.