As the Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, I was interviewed by Natalie Graham for BBC ‘Inside Out’ South East (22 February 2016). Whilst the episode was compact, it nevertheless packed a mighty punch at raising awareness about the risks and dangers that await women when they go online to find an unregulated sperm donor. Laura Witjens recounted her experience of researching unregulated Internet sperm donation. We disturbingly heard how online sperm donors had sent her videos of masturbation and other men had told ‘porkies about themselves.’ A brave lesbian couple stepped forth to be interviewed. They had gone online hoping to find an altruistic donor to help them conceive. Instead, they soon discovered that genuine and safe men were outweighed by those placing pressure for sex or wanting to do harm. Can you see the theme emerging?
In all too typical fashion, the man surfing unregulated Internet sperm donor sites to impregnate one woman after another through sex or by artificial insemination hid behind the cloak of anonymity. In that regard, the question must be posed…‘is he also hiding behind an alias and concealing his identity when he sires children’? By his own admission, he reached the HFEA family limit of donating sperm via a fertility clinic before he stepped into the unregulated cyber-world where he has subsequently sired ‘scores of children.’ Should anyone have been expecting to hear his narrative of altruism and kindness, it was never articulated. Instead, we the watching and listening audience, were confronted by a man whom, by his own admission, was using cyberspace to sire scores of children because he needed an ego boost. I suppose man, in his primitive form (and men with personality disorders), get an ego massage from the irresponsibility of siring children with countless different women. We also know that many men cruising unregulated Internet sperm donor sites and social media platforms are looking for sex (consensual or coercive)…and if they just happen to get a sexual kick from impregnating women…they have struck lucky. This man is no different from the vast number of unregulated sperm donors we have researched….altruism and kindness are rare to unearth in this cyber community. What is easy to find by the bucket load, however, are men striving to profiteer financially by selling gametes illegally and those men perpetually searching for sexual gratification.
We do not know how many children have been born as a consequence of the unregulated cyber trade in sperm. But the man interviewed by Natalie Graham was clearly motivated by sex and fathering large numbers of children with different women. Should anyone be under the illusion that he is altruistic, let’s not forget his comment, where he compared fathering children to ‘taking out the dustbins.’
The personal price girls and women pay for pregnancy and live births is so frequently underestimated. Whilst our society prefers to focus upon the joyful aspects of pregnancy and motherhood, often with a consumerist slant – pregnancy and babies generate revenue, little attention is ever paid to the personal safety or the inherent risks of pregnancy. Here, we refer not to the obstetrics or medical complications of gestation, but those dangers flowing instead from intimate and/or familial bonds with the male partner and/or the father of the unborn child. Pregnancy and violence for many women is interwoven. It is a time when some women will experience violence in their relationships for the first time or the perpetrators will increase the quantity or severity of violence during the gestation. Indeed, over one third of domestic violence starts in pregnancy (Lewis and Drife, 2001, 2005, McWilliams and McKiernan, 1993). Violence in pregnancy is also a significant cause of miscarriage and stillbirth (Mezey, 1997).
The unregulated world of Internet sperm donation is a brutal assault on the senses; it is far removed from the glossy marketing brochures depicting safe, pedestrian, and orderly, approved fertility clinics. In contrast, the cyber platform of sperm donor websites and social networking sites are a myriad of misogyny and rape culture where the chances of a woman avoiding rape, sexual abuse, or a string of other harmful and abusive behaviors, comes down to potluck rather than her application of sense and sensibility. The man with the best career and family pedigree is just as likely to engage in criminally abusive behaviour as his poorer cousin.
For the uninitiated, unregulated Internet sperm donation constitutes a non-medicalized world that lures women with the promise of easy pregnancy and the family they long for, without any complications. What could appear easier than logging online to find an altruistic man to donate his sperm to create new life? The want, the need, and the obsession, to have a child when one lacks sperm, is a powerful emotion, which has been given the opportunity to burgeon into an achievable dream with the advent of unregulated online sperm donor websites and SNS. For many that dream has already reached an impasse with the increasing difficulty of accessing IVF – free at the point of delivery. And where one door to pregnancy closes, another is already gapping wide open, and it can be accessed from the comfort of one’s own home (workplace, café, etc.), without GP appointments, and the unforgiving financial costs associated with HFEA fertility clinics for donor insemination.
The cultural and media representation of sperm donors as altruistic and only too willing to help women realise their dreams of motherhood is a significant factor that leads women en masse into cyberspace to locate the future father of their children. Like many facets in our cyber-driven age, things are not what they first appear to be when one takes the plunge into this murky world of unregulated sperm donation; it is a cyber and cultural milieu where pregnancy and babies can be had for a price. That transaction is often financial and it is also frequently a trade in gender based abuse. Whichever way one looks at unregulated Internet sperm donation, it is a boundless trade; what legislation does exist, goes woefully unenforced by the HFEA. This is not “donation” in the altruistic sense; it is a trade, which is premised upon the exploitation of women with the inevitable winners and losers.
Blogging is something that I haven’t engaged in much during 2015. It has been a year largely dedicated to researching unregulated Internet sperm donors and cyber-enabled violence against women. It has involved extensive additional covert and overt fieldwork and analysis, coupled with the writing of safety guides, and the establishment of an educational campaign on the dangers associated with using unregulated Internet sperm donors. In essence, it has been a busy year.
With the airing of BBC Radio 4’s Out of the Ordinary, “Desperately Seeking Sperm,’ and the piece in the Daily Mail, ‘Unmasked: Sperm donor cowboy who’s ‘fathered 40 children…with 15 on the way’ as doctors warn of health time bomb of siblings born in 50-mile radius’, which exposed Declan Rooney (Upton North) as a man who prolifically fathers children via the Internet and SNS, a catalytic type-thing happened. I was inundated with mail and comments. Unsurprisingly, many women contacted me to share their experiences of violence and abuse meted out by men they had met via unregulated Internet sperm donor sites or SNS. Similarly, a vociferous group of men – (and a few women) – clone like, all adhering to, and celebrating rape culture, thought it appropriate to contact me to voice their chagrin. I was intrigued by their anger, their abusive outrage, and their collective sense of entitlement to abuse women and to continue to impregnate women unfettered; I realised there was more fieldwork to be done and the production of my research report would just have to wait. It was time to jump back into the field.
During this period, my blog has been pretty empty – it is fairly typical for researchers not to discuss the minutia of their research findings until post publication…hence my blogging silence over recent months. I could, of course, just blog for the sake of blogging and avoid discussing my fieldwork and my additional research findings; I could choose instead to blog about the fine details of qualitative data management, coding, or the analysis of a large data-set, but I shall save my readers from that type of boredom as it can make one’s eyes feel pretty numb unless one has a liking for qualitative research and data management.