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Who needs a sperm bank when you've got Facebook? The rise of indie sperm donors
Independent sperm donors are offering their semen online to people who want it. From screening to payment, from shipping to future contact, the parties negotiate their own terms. A few of the men described for me how it works, what it's like, and why they do it.
You may use Facebook to post political cartoons or pictures of your dog. But for thousands of people all over the world it has become a marketplace for sperm.
There are multiple groups, and many donors and recipients join more than one. Posts vary. Some have photos of happy couples or touching appeals about wanting children. Others are more to the point: "I'm peaking tonight. Philadelphia. Anyone?" The final trade is clinched by private message.
Recently I spoke to three Facebook sperm donors. Here's what I learned.
9 minute 30 second read
Who they are
"Gabriel," 30, is a small business owner. He has no kids of his own and is currently single.
"James," 39, is a veteran and police officer. He has three kids of his own and is currently separated from his wife.
"Mark," 53, is a mortgage broker. He has one adult child who he did not raise, and is currently single.
How they started donating
James first donated sperm when a military buddy who'd been injured in Iraq asked him to help. "I thought he was kidding around," recalls James. After James helped the man and his wife have a child, it occurred to him that there might be others looking for help too. He approached a sperm bank to become a donor. "They told me I wasn't tall enough," he says. (He is 5'7".)
Gabriel started donating to a friend of a friend. For months, he drove three hours to the woman's home and back to provide her with fresh sperm. At one point, he started wondering why he was doing all the work. "I said, 'Listen, can you come to my place? This is all for you.'" Then things got weird, he says. The woman called him "cold" and "detached." He didn't know how to break it to her that he wasn't a friend, just a donor.
What the demand is like
James says he gets messages "every day, all day long." He reckons he's probably worked with 50 or 60 recipients so far — "maybe more."
Gabriel says he too is inundated with messages — between 25 and 100 per month.
Mark says that some months he'll get five or so requests, but other months he'll get none.
Number of offspring
James doesn't really like to talk about numbers — he finds that some people aren't keen on a donor with a lot of offspring. He doesn't "keep perfect track" of how many offspring he's helped produce, but it's definitely "over a dozen."
He's thinking of calling it quits this year, though, and thereafter only helping with siblings. "I feel like there's a certain sense of obligation when it comes to siblings."
Gabriel has had no live births so far. When we spoke, he was awaiting news on one pregnancy, getting ready to ship to someone else, and planning a trip to Greece to provide a fresh donation.
He plans to donate to only five or six people in total. He figures it will reduce the chances of the offspring meeting accidentally or of anyone coming after him for money. He also thinks it will be easier for him to be available to any kids who might have questions at age 18.
Mark's donations have led to one live birth so far. The mother, a single woman, has welcomed him into the child's life. "She sends me pictures all the time," he says. "I go down there about once every two months."
Do they charge a fee?
"Absolutely not," says Mark. "It goes against my principles. What's $100 going to do for me?"
"No," says Gabriel. He says he doesn't need money. But he doesn't want to be out of pocket, either. "Tests? You pay for them. Cups? Samples shipped? You pay for it." But the donation and his time are free.
James, on the other hand, charges a flat fee of USD $300 for his time and materials. "I think donors, especially the good donors, should be compensated. Because they are spending a lot of time communicating, answering questions, driving, meeting up with people, taking time out of their day." He has a special diet and takes supplements. Also, he supplies everything: syringes, cups, sperm-friendly lubrication, packing materials, shipping. Even "baby favours."
How indie donation works
There are several ways this is commonly done: NI, PI, fresh AI and shipped AI.
NI, or "natural insemination," means intercourse. This is Mark's preferred method. (His first donation involved shipping sperm across the country, which he said was "a hassle." All his subsequent donations were by NI.)
His first experience with this was unpleasant. The recipient invited him over when she was not in the fertile phase of her cycle in order to "practise," he says. "I wasn't thinking of it as a sexual encounter, even though it was. I was thinking of it as proof that I can perform. I was very mechanical, I guess you could say. And afterwards, she said, 'I want nothing to do with you! You suck!'" he laughs. "She didn't say that, but she cut off all communications."
His next donation was to a woman in her forties. In this case, she did want him to be quick. "I had to perform within 15 minutes," he says. They tried for over a year, but she did not get pregnant. "When it wasn't successful, she kind of got mad at me."
His one live birth — a girl who will be one year old this month — was also conceived through NI.
PI, or "partial insemination," also involves intercourse. But all the stimulation leading up to it is by masturbation. None of the men I spoke to described this as a preferred method.
Gabriel prefers fresh AI, or "artificial insemination." Typically, that involves the donor masturbating into a cup in the bathroom and then the recipient self-inseminating.
After his first experience, Gabriel donated to a woman in her late thirties, who would fly him to Florida. "I had a girlfriend down there at the time," he told me, "so it was two birds, one stone." The recipient tried for 18 months — Gabriel made about eight trips in total — but she was unsuccessful. The girlfriend (yes, I asked) was fine with it, he said.
Some women prefer him to ejaculate into a sterile cup and then they use a special syringe to self-inseminate. Others prefer him to deposit the sample into a Softcup menstrual cup, which can then be inserted directly into the vagina for self-insemination.
He usually asks women to book a hotel nearby so he can stop by to donate once in the evening and again the following morning.
James also prefers fresh AI — he has had recipients travel from "all over," including New Zealand, Philippines, California, Texas, Canada and Mexico — but on Facebook he says he's willing to consider any method.
He often ships sperm, and he has AI shipping down to a fine art.
He needs a few days' notice, he says, because he can only schedule one donation per day. He wants the recipient's mailing address and fee paid no later than the morning of the day of shipment. He purchases the shipping label by noon, produces a sample at around 4:30 p.m., then takes it to UPS by 5 p.m., when the truck arrives to take the package to the airport. It can be delivered all the way across the country by 8 a.m. the next morning. He has a dedicated sperm donation refrigerator in his home.
Gabriel, who was about to ship for the first time, showed me the standard issue kit during our video chat. There was a stryofoam box, a cold pack like the kind you take on picnics, "extenders" that you mix with the sperm sample, and vials in which you then place the prepared sample.
How they select recipients
Gabriel screens people carefully. He asks them via Facebook messenger about their network of family and friends, what they do for work, what they do for fun. He wants to see that they're financially stable and healthy. "I wouldn't want to donate to a family I couldn't see myself being relatively happy growing up in."
Most people don't make the cut. He admits he doesn't really know how best to break it to them. "I do ghost people," he says. "But to tell someone you aren't up to my standards of who I donate to... that's crushing." For those he's considering, he insists on a video call to get a feel for each other.
"I want to know that they're financially secure," says Mark. An 18-year-old approached him recently. "There's just no way," he says.
"I wouldn't want to worry if the child is going to be taken care of," says James. He says he pokes around on their Facebook accounts a bit. "I see what their news feed looks like and look at their pictures. I'll investigate a little bit. I have a pretty good gut instinct." Anything "thuggish" is a deal breaker, he told me, as well as anything from either political extreme. Also, he confesses, "bad grammar."
They all had a bit of guilt about turning people down. "Sometimes I feel like I'm playing God," says Mark. "There are some recipients that I just won't donate to. But who am I to say?" Similarly, Gabriel lamented that the people he turns down might be the ones who need him most.
On being known
For Mark, being known to the child is a requirement. "Some of them don't want me to ever have contact with the child," he says. "So I haven't moved forward on any of those."
James doesn't need contact, but he wants to hear back. "I want to at least see what they ended up looking like, see if they got the blue eyes." He's happy to get occasional pictures or updates and is willing to be contacted after they turn 18. But nothing more. "I have my own kids. I don't need to interfere with anyone else's life."
Gabriel says he doesn't want to be involved whatsoever. He's willing to be contacted about health questions, or by the kids themselves when they're older, but that's it.
Usually, however, the mothers really want to tell him how things are going. Although he thanks them for the updates and congratulates them, he often doesn't really read the messages. "I just don't look at the sonogram photos. That's something they should share with someone they love and care about, and I'll be doing that with my future family."
Gabriel does not give the recipients his real name. There's no contract.
James says, "I don't really want my name on a contract." No contract.
Mark uses a modified version of a California known donor contract. "I just went online and cut and pasted what looked good," he says. By the terms of that contract, the recipient has complete control and the donor has no financial responsibility, he told me. "The contract says no natural insemination. I'm just kind of hoping that the recipient never tests it."
Why they do it
Gabriel: "For the same reason I donate blood. I get nothing out of it. But what gets me fired up about it is the fact that there aren't good donors out there. I don't want to say I'm better than what's out there, but from what women are telling me I'm a good donor. So I feel like, it doesn't cost me much, so why wouldn't I?"
Mark: "Basically, it was a way I could volunteer. It was a way for me to be altruistic. I'm also kind of embarrassed saying it, but I've kind of given up on having a relationship. This is kind of like my relationship."
James: "As a military guy, a police officer and a firefighter, community servant locally, I do like to help people. There may be no greater gift than helping them build their family. I see how happy they get.
"I know that my children are healthy. I have pretty good genes. I don't have any family history of hereditary diseases or illnesses. So that's why I help.
"I just had a girl donor baby born like two weeks ago, and they wrote me this whole thing about how appreciative they were. It just really touched my heart. I'm glad I'm able to help people have families."