For months, Beth Gardner and her wife, Nicole, had been looking for someone to help them conceive. They began with sperm banks, which have donors of almost every background, searchable by religion, ancestry, even the celebrity they most resemble. But the couple balked at the prices—at least $2,000 for the sperm alone—and the fact that most donors were anonymous; they wanted their child to have the option to one day know his or her father. So in the summer of 2010, at home with their two dogs and three cats, Beth and Nicole typed these words into a search engine: “free sperm donor.”
A few clicks later, the couple slid into an online underground, a mishmash of personal ads, open forums, and members-only websites for women seeking sperm—and men giving it away. Most donors pledge to verify their health and relinquish parental rights, much like regular sperm-bank donors. But unlike their mainstream counterparts, these men don’t get paid. They’re also willing to reveal their identities and allow any future offspring to contact them. Many of the men say they do it out of altruism, but some also talk unabashedly of kinky sex and spreading their gene pool.
Curious, Beth and Nicole posted to a Yahoo Group, and within days they had more than a dozen suitors. “We got some weirdos,” says Beth, a 35-year-old tech professional near San Diego. But most of the donors were “very nice and obviously well educated.” After careful vetting—consisting of a homemade questionnaire, interviews, reference checks, and STD tests—the couple settled on a 30-something professional and arranged the donation.
Like most women in search of free sperm, Beth and Nicole asked for artificial insemination, or AI. As opposed to natural insemination (code for actual sex), AI typically involves injecting fresh sperm into the vagina, or loading it into a latex cup that fits on the cervix. Beth and Nicole had to work around three people’s schedules and an ovulation calendar, so the venues at which they met their donor had a saucy impromptu feel: a hotel, the back of the couple’s SUV, a camper trailer, a Starbucks bathroom. At Starbucks, the donor ejaculated in the bathroom in private, exited, and handed the sperm-filled latex cup to Nicole, who in turn entered the bathroom and attached the cup to her cervix. As nature took its course, the three sat down for coffee together. “It wasn’t my highest moment,” says Beth. They didn’t conceive.
The couple is trying again with a new donor—and Beth has become a fervent believer in the strategy. In January, she launched the Free Sperm Donor Registry (FSDR), a sleek, user-friendly portal that works kind of like a dating site, only the women are listed as “recipients” and men as “donors.” The homepage quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” Six months in, FSDR has more than 2,000 members, including about 400 donors, and claims a dozen pregnancies. The first live birth is expected this fall.
Reproductive medicine is as close to miracle work as humans can muster: it has supplemented the stork with the syringe, creating thousands of new lives annually where none seemed possible. But in lifting the fog around infertility, doctors have moved nature’s most intimate act deeper into the lab, and created a population of prospective parents—straight, gay, single, and married—who crave a more human connection. That need is now being met by sites like FSDR, which joins a global boom in the exchange of free, fresh sperm between strangers.
At least six Yahoo Groups, three Google sites, and about a dozen fee-based websites are dedicated to the cause. Most of them are in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, where sperm banks have seen donations drop in the wake of recent laws that limit fees and, in some cases, forbid anonymity. The donor pool is still large in the U.S., where college kids can make as much as $12,000 a year from sperm banks for anonymous twice-weekly donations.
But sperm banks, though regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, carry risk. In recent years sperm with a host of serious diseases and disorders has been sold to hundreds of women, according to medical journals and other published reports. Earlier this year ABC News identified at least 24 donor-children whose father had a rare aorta defect that could potentially kill his offspring at any minute. And in September, The New York Times reported on sperm banks’ creating 100-kid clusters around a single donor, raising questions about not only disease, but accidental incest.
Cost is also a concern. In many states, insurance won’t cover donor insemination unless a woman can show that she hasn’t been able to get pregnant. This makes it hard for lesbian couples and single women who don’t have male partners. And all couples face insurance caps that can mean thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket pay.
Many women also believe their donor-conceived children have a right to know their fathers, something most sperm banks have resisted, fearing such openness would scare off potential donors. Even banks that do reveal dads’ identities will do so only when a child turns 18.
As the first generation of donor-kids come of age, a growing number are expressing frustration at this closed-door policy. Confessions of a Cryokid and Anonymous Us are among the websites where they come to vent, airing unhappiness at feeling “half-adopted” and aching at the thought that their fathers could be anyone. “The system is severely broken,” says Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, a website that unites kids who have the same donor-fathers.
Of course, the market for free sperm raises its own set of questions. What if a donor sues for custody? What if he lies about an STD? Is he a potential threat to public health? What if his real motive is sex—and would that even matter? Just who are these guys anyway?
To find out, I registered at FSDR as a “just looking” member and spent two months following forum discussions, participating in chats, surfing through profiles, and interviewing more than a dozen donors and recipients. I also contacted donors who have set up personal websites or advertised on other sites. What I found was a universe that’s often more lascivious than a Nicholson Baker novel, but somehow less bizarre and more relatable. Far from being overrun by sex-crazed “sperminators” and “desperate girls,” the way British tabloids have portrayed the business, most of what I found was mundanely human.
Many of the women want to reproduce on their own terms, while they still can. Some have had miscarriages; others are widowed; still others, divorced. Some say they got pregnant when they were much younger and gave up the baby or aborted it, and now want another chance. Others have been busy with careers. Hope, a single 43-year-old zoologist, echoes most FSDR searchers when she says, “I really want to have a child, and I want to give that child the best shot at having a good life, which is why I chose this route.”
As with traditional sperm banks, most of FSDR’s users are lesbian couples or would-be single mothers. But the site does have an active cohort of straight pairs and married women, like a 37-year-old homemaker near Columbus, Ohio, who gave her name as Wendy. She says on a forum post that her husband—whose sperm count was diminished by a childhood case of the mumps—interviewed prospective donors with her. His one condition: AI only. “It seems more ‘our’ baby if sex is not involved,” she recalls him saying. Their son is due in January.
Donors on FSDR are a bawdier mix of high intentions and caveman dreams. One donor, whom Carissa, a 38-year-old divorcée in Fargo, N.D., was about to invite over for a “natural insemination” session, spooked her. “He wanted me to yell, ‘Make me pregnant!’?” during sex, she says.
It’s a telling detail. Many donors say they are motivated not by sex so much as a desire to spawn as many children as possible. “I actually have little interest in even a stone-cold fox if she isn’t going to get pregnant,” says Ray, a 38-year-old who declined to give his real name. Ray, who already had two kids with his wife and claims to have two more via one-night stands, started donating sperm in 2009. He prefers to donate the natural way, which he says has a higher chance of success than AI (it doesn’t), and he boasts of six births and six current pregnancies in attempts with about 40 different women. “I guess in some ways, helping lesbians, I am like an astronaut of inner space,” he says, “going where no man has gone before.”
One of the men who responded to Beth and Nicole, a married 29-year-old, said his IQ was in the 99.8th percentile (“note: results available”) and said he would like to “propagate my genes, and help support the society of tomorrow by combating dysgenic reproductive trends.” Translation: make babies as smart as he is. Down a few pegs on the pomposity scale, there’s “Mongol,” a 31-year-old Canadian who donates AI-style on both sides of the border. He arrives prepared, with a porn-loaded BlackBerry, headphones (to preserve the tranquillity of the moment), Hitachi-brand penis massager, and likes “the whole idea of having people out there related to you.”
It’s a motivation that flummoxes some sex researchers. Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale University and the author of a new study of the fertility market, Sex Cells, says that among the 20 sperm-bank donors she interviewed, the most common motives were money, spreading “amazing genes,” as one guy put it, and helping women conceive. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, anthropologist Peter Gray, coauthor of Fatherhood, about the evolution of paternal behavior, says this drive to propagate reminds him of the ancient khan men of Mongolia—and of Moulay Ismail, the 17th-century emperor of Morocco—men who fathered as many as a thousand children, parenting none of them. “I’ll have to think about this a bit,” he says.
As the market for free sperm grows, regulators are keeping a watchful eye. Last December, Canada’s public-health department issued an “information update,” noting the rise of free-sperm websites and warning that “the distribution of fresh semen [for assisted conception] is prohibited.” In the U.S., the FDA recently targeted at least one donor, citing his failure to comply with a 2005 law that requires donors to undergo STD and communicable-disease tests, reviewed by doctors, within seven days of every donation. (Commercial sperm banks use frozen sperm and test donors at the beginning and end of a six-month quarantine.) The case has emerged as a legal challenge for the alternative world, potentially slowing the market, since such tests can run up to $10,000, making donations cost-prohibitive.
It began in December 2006, when Trent Arsenault, now 36 and a bachelor outside San Francisco, began offering his sperm through Trentdonor.org, a website bedecked with shots of Arsenault as a cute toddler and hunky outdoorsman. Tall and blond, Arsenault works as an engineer at a tech company and is a former Naval Academy midshipman (he dropped out to move to Silicon Valley). His qualifications might make a sperm bank drool. But he prefers to work independently, he says, having already donated to about 50 women, mostly Bay Area lesbians. Perhaps thanks in part to his twice-daily “fertility smoothies” (a blend of blueberries, almonds, and other vitamin-rich fare), he has sired at least 10 children, he says.
His prospects came to a halt in September 2010, when FDA agents knocked on the door of his 700-square-foot bachelor pad. They interviewed him in his bedroom, and collected medical records and other material related to how he “recovers and distributes semen,” according to the FDA investigation. The tone was cordial, Arsenault recalls. He even wrote a thank-you letter to the agency, complimenting “the professional and courteous attitude” of its agents.
But the following month, there came another knock on the door, this time from local police delivering an FDA order to “cease manufacture” of sperm, the first such order leveled against an individual citizen, according to a search of government records. Per the order, the agency considers Arsenault to be essentially a one-man sperm bank, referring to him as a “firm,” and alleging that he “does not provide adequate protections against communicable diseases.” If he engages in the “recovery, processing, storage, labeling, packaging, or distribution” of sperm, he faces a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. “I saved the FDA letter,” Arsenault says. “It may be worth something someday on eBay.”
In some ways, Arsenault is like other guys who are giving away their sperm, “fulfilling a needed role as women realize that anonymous biological fathers often deprive their offspring a needed identity,” as he put it in a letter to the FDA.
But he also finds the work gratifying in its own right. His only sexual activity, he says, involves masturbating into a cup and handing off the cup. “I describe myself as donorsexual,” he says, “so my sexual activity is limited to donation.” He jokes that in a few years he’ll be “the 40-year-old virgin with 15 kids.” He’s appealed the FDA ruling on the grounds that free sperm donation is a form of sex, and thus not subject to government interference. The case is under internal agency review as officials decide whether Arsenault is trying to “skirt the law,” as the FDA’s lawyers have argued in documents sent to Arsenault, or if free sperm donation should be protected as a private sexual matter. The FDA declined to comment on the case.
Any attempt to limit private sperm donation is “preposterous,” says Beth Gardner, the FSDR founder. “If it’s legal to go to a bar, get drunk, and sleep with a random stranger, then it can’t possibly be illegal to provide clean, healthy sperm in a cup.” Still, she’s the first to admit that not all donors are professional, and not all recipients make the most informed choices. She hopes FSDR will help change that, which is why it prohibits nudity, dirty talk, cruising for casual sex, and any behavior that other members deem harassing or inappropriate. There are also testimonials, how-to articles, cost comparisons, and legal materials.
Now Gardner says she has plans for expansion, adding an egg-donor section and recruiting bloggers. She may change the name to the Known Donor Registry because it’s more “expansive.” “The site is at the point now where I need to take it to the next level,” she says. In August page views topped more than 2 million—and, like its users, Gardner only hopes they’ll multiply.
As for Arsenault, while he waits to hear about his reproductive future, he is enjoying the fruits of his past, posting pictures of his babies, and keeping up an active relationship with the five or six families who have requested one so far. Last month he visited with Keri and Amber Pigott-Robertson, a 30-something lesbian couple in Modesto, Calif., who found Arsenault through a Google search in 2009 and now have a 1-year-old daughter via his donation.
“When he saw her for the first time, his face just lit up,” says Amber, who made peach pie for the occasion. “He was a perfect match. He gave us what we had been longing for, what we felt would complete us. So there’s no expressing how much gratitude I have for him. People like Trent come once in a lifetime.”