The Genius Factory
My short, scary career as a sperm donor.
In this excerpt from The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, a new book based on a Slate project, David Plotz recounts his own awkward attempt to become a sperm donor.
After talking to donors from the Nobel sperm bank, I remained puzzled about why they had bothered with such a peculiar and burdensome enterprise. That's when I realized that I needed to donate sperm, too. Not because I wanted to, quite the contrary. I already had two children, which seemed more than enough on most days. My lack of desire to donate is why I felt obliged to do it. No matter how often donors explained their rationale to me, sperm donation befuddled me. Why had the repository donors subjected themselves to such inconvenience and embarrassment? Why had they been willing to father children—dozens in some cases—that they could never know? What was donating like? I had to find out for myself.
I dutifully informed my wife about my plan. "No way," Hanna said. I argued that it was all in the name of research. She was unimpressed. I promised that I would stop the sperm bank before it could sell my sperm. She didn't believe the bank would make such a deal. I swore that there was no chance they would use my sperm. I begged, which was not a pretty sight. She relented.
These days, sperm banks recruit customers and donors through the Internet, so I cruised the Web and found an application for Fairfax Cryobank, located in Washington, D.C.'s, Virginia suburbs. Fairfax Cryobank is to sperm banking what Citigroup is to real banking. It has branches in four states and Canada. The sperm bank itself is only one small division of a full-service fertility business, the Genetics & IVF Institute.
I completed Fairfax's online application in a couple of minutes—it asked for little more than my name and address. A week later, the mailman delivered a discreet brown envelope with no name on the return address. Sperm banks, like pornographers, keep everything on the down-low. Bank staffers dislike leaving phone messages, but if they must, the message is almost incomprehensibly vague: "This is Mary, from Fairfax. We'd like to talk to you about your recent inquiry. Please call us at ...")
The brown package from Fairfax contained an 18-page application. I trudged through the physical data: age, hair color, height, weight, blood type. I dragged my way through the biographical section: educational history, profession, musical talent ("None," I wrote proudly), athletic abilities, hobbies. Then Ibored through the medical questionnaire: alcohol use, tobacco use,drug use, tattooing history, how well I sleep, how well I eat, whatmedicines I take and why, what bones I have broken, whether I exchangesex for money, whether I had used intranasal cocaine in thepreceding 12 months. I listed three generations of familial mentalillness and felt my own ticker skip a beat when I wrote that all my male ancestors on both sides of the family had died young of heart disease. I declared that I wasn't a carrier of Gaucher disease, Fanconi anemia, Niemann-Pick disease, Canavan disease, or thalassemia, although I had not the faintest idea what those illnesses were. I checked off whether I suffered from any of an endless roster of symptoms—hoarseness, warts, blood in stool, goiter, tingling, dizziness, fainting, convulsions, seizures, fits, shaking, tremor, numbness. By the time I was done, I was suffering from several of them. I was asked 16 ways to Sunday if I inject drugs or have sex with other men. I agreed to submit to an HIV test. Finally, I reached Page 18, which was the scariest of all: "I agree that I release all rights, privileges, and disposition of my semen specimens to Fairfax Cryobank." Hanna is going to kill me, I thought, and then I signed it.
According to the application, if my written application made the cut, I would be invited for an interview, where I would "produce" a semen sample for analysis. If that were satisfactory, I would return for more semen analyses and a physical. Only if I passed those would I qualify as a donor.
I mailed my application to Fairfax and waited. And waited. And waited. After two months, I was miffed. How dare they ignore my semen? That semen had produced two healthy children! That semen had run a marathon! Then my irritation turned to worry: Did Fairfax know something I didn't about my health? Was my future that bleak? Was all that heart disease really so bad? Suddenly I found myself desperate to be chosen.
I had just applied to a bank in New York when I received an e-mail from "Amanda," who identified herself as Fairfax's laboratories coordinator. She invited me for an interview. She noted, oh so casually, that I would have to furnish a sample on the premises.
The following Monday, I made my way to the Fairfax Cryobank office, situated beyond the Washington Beltway in The Land of Wretched Office Parks, in the dreariest of all office developments. The building's blandness may be intentional: A sperm bank doesn't want to draw attention to itself or its visitors.
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."
Amanda had managed to take a mysterious and sexual and profound process and make it sound exactly like ... a job. I considered asking her about the 401(k) and dental benefits.
Finally, it was time for the money shot. She led me next door to the lab, where three women in lab coats were chatting about their weekends while studying sperm samples under microscopes. They ignored me. When I became a regular donor, Amanda said, I would come straight to the lab to collect a sterile cup and a labeling sticker. She handed me a cup. Amanda pointed to a small incubator—a warm metal box—where I would put the "specimen" when I was done. Next to the incubator was a pile of plastic sachets; they looked like the mustard packets you get with a deli sandwich. "That's KY jelly," she said. "It's nontoxic for sperm. Still, just try not to get it, you know, on the sample."
The donor room was really no more than a large closet. Fairfax has two of them—sometimes known in the trade as "blue rooms" or "masturbatoriums." A dingy beige love seat was pushed against the far wall. An erotic print hung above the sofa. It was a painting of a woman from behind; she was wearing some diaphanous lingerie. It was pretty sexy, to be honest. On another wall were a clock, a sink, and a cabinet. Amanda handed me a pen and told me to write the time of ejaculation on the cup when I was done. She turned on the taps and instructed, "Wash your hands now with this antibacterial soap, and dry them well. Water is toxic for semen."
"Here's the exhaust fan." She flipped a switch by the door, and a buzzing noise covered the room. She opened the cabinet. "And here are the magazines." She handed me a stack of High Societys, Gallerys, and Playboys, all well-thumbed. "Fairfax Cryobank" was scrawled on the cover of each. Amanda seemed unfazed. I pretended I was unfazed, too.
She gave me the phone number for the chief lab technician and told me to call the next day to find out whether I had a high enough sperm count and whether my guys had survived freezing and thawing. "Now, of 100 men who apply," she said reassuringly, "we only interview 20 or 30. And the vast majority of those—even men who have their own children already—end up being disqualified by sperm count. So don't feel bad if you don't make it." She thanked me for coming in. She flashed me one more gleaming, sexy smile, closed the door, and locked it from the outside.
The next few minutes passed as you would expect and are none of your business.
When I was done, I walked my cup down the hall to the incubator. I tried to catch the eye of one of the technicians, to ask if I could take a sperm paperweight as a souvenir. None of them looked at me.
The next morning, I called the chief lab technician. "I was about to call you," she said. "I have some good news. You passed the freezing and thawing. We want to make arrangements for your second trial specimen—that is, if you are still interested."
I flushed. I couldn't resist asking, "So what were my numbers? What was the count?"
"Your count was about 105 million per milliliter. The usual is around 50 to 60 million. So you are well above average."
I grinned—105 million! I was "well above average." I started to make an appointment for my second deposit, then thought better of it. Hanna was right: Who knew what they were doing with my sperm? The longer I kept up the charade, the greater the possibility that my sperm would end up in the wrong hands (or wrong uterus). I told the tech I needed to check my schedule and would call back. I didn't call back.
I was not much closer to wanting to be a donor than I had been before I started, but I was closer to understanding why someone else might want to do it. In the abstract, donating sperm had seemed fundamentally silly. But actually doing it was seductive. I had been accepted by the ultraexclusive Fairfax Cryobank! My sperm was "well above average"! My count was 105 million! What's yours, George Clooney? Amanda, lovely Amanda, had asked for my help. The women of America demanded my B-positive, brown-eyed, six-foot-one-inch, HIV-negative, drug-free, heart-attack-prone sperm. How could I deny it to them?
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.