The Genius Factory
My short, scary career as a sperm donor.
Inside, I hunted through the first-floor corridors, past the mysterious "microsort" room and "egg donor" facility, searching for the sperm-bank office. I saw an open door, peeked in, and discovered that I had stumbled on the vault—the room that housed Fairfax's liquid-nitrogen storage tanks. I ducked inside and found myself alone with the tanks. There were four of them. They were head-high and looked like fat silver men. Each tank, I knew, held tens of thousands of vials, and each vial was filled with millions of spermatozoa. My skin got clammy: It felt like the scene in the science fiction movie when the hero accidentally discovers the warehouse where the "friendly" aliens are freezing the millions of humans they have secretly kidnapped for their terrible experiments.
Finally I located the door marked "Cryobank" and walked into an uncomfortably cramped waiting room. A couple—not a young couple—was sitting there. They looked up, startled, when I entered. We half-smiled at each other. All of us instantly recognized the awkward situation. They were there to buy sperm; I was there to sell it. We had each accidentally looked through a window into a world we did not want to see. I was sure the couple was thinking, "That guy is a donor? The hell with this place, let's go to Sperm World instead."
I flagged down the receptionist, who assumed I was a customer, too. When I explained I was there to see Amanda about donating, she was chagrined. I wasn't supposed to be there. I had apparently come in the wrong door. Amanda was summoned from her office and hustled me into the back, out of sight of the couple.
Amanda led me to her office, a cozy room lined with wedding pictures and prints of sailing ships. She checked my driver's license then pulled out my application and began reviewing it with me, line by line. In tone,it felt like a job interview with human resources. In subject,it was rather different. "OK, so you live in Washington, great. And your blood is B-positive. You sure of that? No? That's OK, we'll check it. Hmm, so your family is from eastern Europe. Do you know exactly where? Can you check?" She noticed I was married and asked if my wife knew that I was there. I answered, "Of course. Don't all wives know?"
Amanda acted as though this was very funny and said, "A lot of donors are married and don't tell their wives."
She asked me where I had gone to college. I said "Harvard." She was delighted. She continued, "And have you done some graduate work?" I said no. She looked disappointed. "But surely you are planning to do some graduate work?" Again I said no. She was deflated and told me why. Fairfax has something it calls—I'm not kidding—its "doctorate program." For a premium, mothers can buy sperm from donors who have doctoral degrees or are pursuing them. What counts as a doctor? I asked. Medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, law, and chiropractic. Don't say you weren't warned: Your premium "doctorate" sperm may have come from a law student.
As we discussed the application, I gazed distractedly at Amanda's screen saver, a soothing blue-and-white pattern. After a few seconds, I noticed that the white pattern was a school of tiny sperm, tails waving jauntily as they motored across the screen. I took a second look at the mouse paperweight on Amanda's desk. It wasn't a mouse. It was a cute little sperm.
Such goofiness was, I came to discover, a hallmark of modern sperm banks. Fairfax hands out pens on college campuses that ask, "Why not get paid for it?" When I visited California Cryobank, the director of public relations gave me a T-shirt depicting swimming sperm. Around the sperm ran a circle of text that read "Future People" in a dozen different languages. California Cryobank distributes floaty pens, with a little plastic sperm swimming up and down, up and down.
Anyway, back to Amanda. At this point I am obliged to point out that Amanda was cute. In fact, she was distractingly cute. She was thirty, I'd guess, and looked Latina. She smiled all the time, a sexy, gleaming smile, and laughed when I made even the lamest stab at a joke. She leaned across her desk toward me as we talked. Rule number one of sperm banking: The people who recruit donors are invariably women, and they are invariably good-looking. I suspect—no, I am sure—that this is deliberate, to get donors excited to join the Fairfax team.
Yet Amanda's sexiness presented a kind of paradox. The chief activity of the sperm bank—its entire purpose—is masturbation. But my interview with Amanda was actually designed to desexualize what I would be doing. It eliminated the embarrassment that men feel about masturbation by replacing it with tedium. After the review of my application, Amanda walked me, step by countless step, through the qualification process—if my sperm count were above such-and-such a number, I would make the next round. There would be blood tests for gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis, and scary diseases I had never heard of. They would give me a renal ultrasound. My sperm would again be counted, frozen, thawed, and recounted. Its motility—how well it swims—would be tested and retested. Only then would I finally be admitted as a donor—and even that was contingent on passing regular blood tests. Amanda listed what I would be required to supply to the bank if I qualified: baby photos, an audio CD about myself, essays on such topics as "What is your most memorable childhood experience?" and "What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?"
Amanda held forth enthusiastically and at great length about money. "You will get paid $50 per usable specimen, for starters. Then you will get $5 for every vial from the specimen. The average is 10 to 14 vials per specimen. When a vial is released from quarantine after six months, you will get another $5. So the average payment is $209 per deposit." She paused. "Now, this is ordinary income, but we don't do withholding. We send checks twice a month, but later we will just give you a check every six months. We will send you a 1099 form at the end of the year."
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of sperm courtesy California Cryobank. Photograph of sperm on the Slate home page courtesy Toronto Star/Zuma Press.Still from Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask on the Slate home page © courtesy Everett Collection/Everett Collection.