It’s a Sunday afternoon and Louise, 36, is sat at the bar of a West London hotel waiting for a man she met online.
Casting her eyes upwards she finally sees him, striding purposefully towards her table. He nods, shyly averting his eyes as he passes Louise the room key, while retrieving something from his pocket that he slips hurriedly into her hand.
Finally the man meets her eyes and his face breaking into a satisfied grin.
‘Good luck,’ he utters before turning on his heel to exit the hotel, leaving Louise and her wife with a syringe full of semen.
Louise is one of thousands of people desperately seeking semen online. She and her wife Mary, 35, turned to Facebook to find a donor and discovered multiple groups that pair prospective parents with semen suppliers.
The profiles are not unlike dating bios, with members sharing their ages, occupations and of course their STD status and fertility credentials.
A typical donor post reads: ‘London AI or NI donor, Half English, Spanish. 5’11” dark brown hair. Fortunate to have no health problems. Never smoked or taken drugs. Somehow scored 129 on an IQ test. Recent clean STI check.’
The different acronyms stand for various fertilisation methods. These are Artificial Insemination (syringe/turkey-baster), Partial Natural Insemination (masturbating and climaxing inside the recipient) and Natural Insemination (having penetrative sex).
Recipients’ posts tend to be more detailed, including wedding photos, family snaps and information about finances.
A typical request from someone seeking sperm says: ‘Hi me and my wife are looking for a donor (no NI please) we don’t drink or smoke we have our own house and both work full time. We would prefer the donor to have absolutely no contact with the child very minimal updates if that’s okay. We will pay for your travel! We welcome all ethnicities. Thank you for looking or considering us!’
While lesbian couples are by far the largest recipient group, there are also plenty of single women and some heterosexual couples struggling to conceive, who take to the group to find the semen they need.
‘New here. Any donors Yorkshire area?,’ one post from a single woman reads. ‘White male (tall if possible lol) new to all this but I’m 25 and single. Very broody. Please pm me so we can sort out what each other’s expectations and wishes are.’
Confirming expectations before proceeding is vital, especially because the legalities surrounding private donations remain obscure.
Factors such as the mother’s relationship status and the insemination method could land the donor with legal obligations. Fertility law specialists Natalie Gamble Associates, (NGA) explain: ‘A sperm donor who donates through sexual intercourse (sometimes called “natural insemination”) is always the legal father of any child conceived, irrespective of what the parents agree or what is recorded on the birth certificate.’
However, if recipients go through a Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) licenced fertility clinic, legislation states that the donor is completely absolved of any parental or financial obligations. This route also ensures thorough STD and health screenings – but it comes with one major drawback: the cost.
For a lesbian couple to be offered Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) – treated semen inserted directly into the womb – on the NHS, they must have first undergone six unsuccessful rounds of IUI, costing £1,600 a squirt. Heterosexual couples must try conceiving naturally for two years or have undergone 12 rounds of IUI.
Finding a donor online is faster, simpler and the recipient gets to meet the donor – but of course, it comes with its own risks.
Since 1 April 2005, people conceived via a sperm, egg or embryo donation thereafter have been legally entitled to access their donor’s information after turning 16, including their physical description and the year and country of their birth. This extends to the donor’s full name and address when the child turns 18. However, the recipient parents are not privy to such information.
Michelle, 33, from Chicago, is one of the women taking to Facebook groups to find a sperm donor. She and her wife Klara, 27, consider it vital that their child can contact their donor in the future, and says the biggest challenge has been ‘finding someone we have a connection with and who we can genuinely trust’.
The child of adoptive parents who met her biological family as an adult, Michelle’s personal experience means this factor is even more important.
‘It was extremely important for me to know where I came from,’ she explains. ‘The bare minimum we would like is that when our kid is of age that they at least get to reach out and talk to the donor at least once.’
Jessica, 39, from Norfolk, has a four-year-old son Leo, conceived through an online donor. She and her wife Vicky, 42, have recently returned to Facebook in the hopes of finding a donor for a second child. While they would have liked to have used the same donor again, he now lives abroad.
‘We sent him pictures of Leo as a newborn, and have shared a few emails, but ultimately, he’s not a part of our son’s life, which is what we all wanted,’ says Jessica. ‘He’s not his parent, but we wanted Leo to be able to reach out with questions when he’s older, which he was happy with.’
Louise and her wife share this desire, which they discussed with their donor over coffee. They described him as someone who ‘genuinely wanted to help people’, and was how they found themselves in the hotel bar while he masturbated upstairs.
The clandestine rendezvous was due to the parties living on different sides of London, but hotels are often favoured as a way of maintaining formality and increasing safety.
Like Louise, Michelle says she and her wife will only use AI (artificial insemination), but some recipients are open to NI (natural insemination, also known as penetrative sex). Unsurprisingly, such recipients tend to get mass responses.
One frustrated woman wrote: ‘With natural insemination, does anyone else feel like they are just getting hit on in this group?’
A number of men are simply seeking sex and therefore insist exclusively upon NI.
Michael, 45, a construction worker, donates solely by AI. ‘Anyone who says they only do NI is just doing it for sex,’ he says.
‘People I’ve helped have told me about other so-called ‘donors’ that have already agreed to do AI and when they meet say that they’ll only do NI.’
The larger proportion of donors offer and even insist upon AI. But as this means getting neither sexual satisfaction, paternal fulfilment or the clinic’s standard £35 donation fee, what motivates these men to donate?
Is it simply the altruistic act of helping others achieve their dream of having a family? This is the primary reason given by multiple donors.
Steve, 40, a lorry driver from Hampshire said he donates: ‘Because it costs me nothing to help people and IVF is very expensive.’
Some donors have children of their own and want to extend that experience to others.
Father-of-two Michael comments: ‘Being a Dad is the best thing I’ve ever done, so I want to help others that can’t have kids join the fun of parenthood.’
Philip, 44, from Preston is father to two children and says he donates because: ‘I’ve got children myself and it’s something I wanted to do. A wonderful gift to be able to give others.’
Relationship and Sex Therapist Miranda Christophers confirms genuine compassion could be a motivation, even if that sounds far-fetched to more cynical types. ‘For some men, the reason may be a social one whereby they can give something meaningful to someone who may be desperate to start a family,’ she explains.
It’s true that helping other people provides a sense of personal fulfillment.
Academics James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander wrote in their paper entitled The Helper’s High: ‘Psychologists have identified a typical state of euphoria reported by those engaged in charitable activity. They call it “helper’s high”, and it’s based on the theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that provide a mild version of a morphine high.’
This certainly rings true for a number of the donors interviewed. Vincent, a fifty-something Biologist from Cambridge commented: ‘I’m a blood donor, but the experience when you get a success is far better/more joyous than the righteous feeling of giving blood’.
There also seems a certain level of egotism associated with being fertile.
One donor wrote: ‘Just got some good news today – I still fire good ones’. Many donors post snaps of positive pregnancy tests while one man sent me a clip of his semen darting about under a microscope.
It seems the propensity to impregnate a woman remains somewhat entangled in the male psyche as proof of manhood. It even extends to sexual fantasy, with ‘breeding porn’ a popular porn subcategory.
Subtly distinct from the desire to prove fertility is the desire to reproduce. To have offspring and pass on your DNA as a kind of legacy. Fatherhood expert Armin Brott, heralded by Time magazine as ‘Superdad’s Superdad’, explains: ‘People want to have children so they can create something in their own image and pass on their world view. It may sound a little bit snooty but it’s kind of what we do. It’s what every living organism does. You want to make copies of yourself.’
Charles, 36, a novelist from London, explains: ‘I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want children, but I do want to leave something behind and help people.’
The male desire to spread his seed could be hardwired into the primordial brain, as evolutionary-biologist Richard Dawkins explains in his book The Selfish Gene.
Meanwhile, sex and relationship psychotherapist Mary Clegg says that offering up semen to pass down our genes taps into our ‘caveman’ psyche.
‘We haven’t really evolved from the caveman in terms of our basic functions,’ she says. ‘In my opinion, the need to procreate would still be an innate part of a man. It would also be an innate part of a woman to have, raise and nurture a child, whether she’s in a gay or straight relationship.’
But for many of these men, the desire to be a father is entirely separate from the desire to procreate. This urge is apparently so strong that some donors keep their spermy sideline a secret from their partners.
Michael hasn’t told his partner as he feared she might ‘go nuts’ and says: ‘The way I see it is that I’m not actually doing anything wrong.’
Vincent also hides his pastime from his wife of almost 30 years, as she would ‘see it as a rejection’. He says: ‘It is my body and I will use it as I wish. Donation does not involve any violation of my marriage vows, but I can quite see that she would see things differently’.
Steve, who at the time of interviewing had assisted with 17 pregnancies, says his wife doesn’t know about his donating as their relationship is ‘a bit complicated’.
That is not to say the majority of donors are mass-firing their semen out to impregnate as many women as possible, or that they’re not discerning about who they donate to.
Mark, 39, a welding inspector from Georgia, shared his particular criterion: ‘They have to have a stable job, also, we need to agree about everything that each party expects. I’m divorced and wanted more kids. This is a way for me to do that, pass on my DNA and help others.’
An especially prolific donor named Kyle Gordy, 28, a financier from California, says he didn’t want to regret not having kids later on. ‘I realised I would never have kids of my own so this was kinda like a compromise,’ he explains. ‘I get to make sure I at least have offspring I made and women get to have kids. The other good perk is I do not have to pay for any of the children.’
Kyle was the only donor we spoke to who wanted his photo and online name used in this article, as he wants recipients to seek him out.
A donor since the age of 22, he follows a special diet, shares fertility tips on his blog and is a fount of knowledge on donor law. At the time of interviewing, Kyle had helped 29 women have babies, with eight more on the way.
Donating by all methods, his main proviso is that the recipient is financially stable. He has donated across the US and abroad and said he would like to donate further afield, provided his travel was paid for.
Something striking about Kyle is his use possessive and nepotistic language when he referred to ‘my kids’ or explained ‘I had a child with her’. He has met several of the children he helped produce, seemingly enjoying a kind of diluted snapshot of fatherhood with none of the responsibility.
Is there a sense of craving closeness? Kyle says he isn’t ‘much of a relationship person’ but through donating, he gets to share in the joy and familiarity of a family, albeit fleetingly.
Divorced Charles says his relationships tend to make everyone involved miserable but spoke with shy fondness about his recipient couple: ‘We have lots in common, they’re both vegetarians like me. We speak on WhatsApp most days.’
For men who may feel emotionally unfulfilled, donating offers a sense of being needed. They get to feel wanted and important entirely on the basis of having functioning testes.
Clearly, the reasons for donating vary widely from donor to donor. In this scenario, people desperate to have children get to do so, regardless of what the donor’s personal motivation may be. As neither side desires the donor’s parental input, everyone’s needs are met.
Of all the people interviewed, both sides were insistent that they did not consider donors as fathers in any way. Donors with children state that their relationship with the child defines their paternity, mentioning helping with homework and nursing through illness. This can be summarised by socio-biologist Robert Trivers’ theory of parental investment, which he defines as ‘any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring’s chance of surviving (and hence reproductive success) at the cost of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring.’
While detaching gametes from fatherhood is a desirable trait in donors, it may be this same propensity that enables men to abandon children or be reckless about contraception.
The difference lies entirely in the individual’s application of this trait. Men who donate their sperm to people online are supplying an urgent demand. But they are also providing people with the chance to love and nurture new life, which can be considered the greatest of gifts.
As for Louise and her wife, after their donor had come and gone, sadly the fertilisation didn’t follow. Baby making was put on hold due to the pandemic.
Now that life has returned to the old normal, the couple are eager to request another load of semen from the man they met online.
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