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.’
As the Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, I hear women’s narratives of sexual abuse – abuse perpetrated by men cruising unregulated sperm donor websites and Facebook Groups. Women using this cyber route for conception are easy targets and easy victims for predatory men in this highly sexualised and exploitative environment, which is little more than a trade route. The power imbalance – men hold the sperm and women need it – immediately creates the mechanisms for abusive patterns of behaviour. This is an arena where repeat sexual offenders operate and violence against women is completely normalised and condoned. It should come as little surprise therefore that it is commonplace for owners and administrators of sperm donor websites and FB Groups to leap to the defence of abusive men and/or to engage in campaigns to silence women with the courage to speak up about their abusive experiences.
The power imbalance – men hold the sperm and women need it – immediately creates the mechanisms for abusive patterns of behaviour.
As a trading route, there are vested interests in protecting the status quo – vested interests that are deemed worthy to fight for. In that regard, some owners and administrators of sperm donor sites want to protect their reputations and they want to keep the money coming in should they levy joining and usage fees. Then, we have those men who do not want to stop sexually abusing women in the guise of helping them to conceive a child. We also have an increasing number of men who want to continue profiteering financially by selling gametes illegally. And what about those men and women whom passively stand back and turn a blind eye to abusive conduct?
Unless women step forth and speak up to report abusive men – such men will simply move on to select their next victim.
As a woman and also as the Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, I advocate that it is a woman’s choice as to whether she reports her abuser to the police, as there are many critical issues to take into consideration. But herein lies the rub. Unless women step forth and speak up to report abusive men – such men will simply move on to select their next victim. If there is one thing we know about men who commit rape and sexual assault, it is that they have a strong tendency to be repeat offenders. Such men (sex offenders) do not necessarily rape or sexually assault every woman they meet or form an intimate relationship with. Instead, they are selective, carefully choosing their victims.
All too frequently in this cyber world of trading sperm, men launch themselves to defend an online buddy accused of commissioning a sexual offence. Supporters assert that the accused is a ‘great guy,’ or ‘he’d never hurt anyone.’ Supporters go on to argue, that the accused, ‘has donated tons of times and no one else has ever complained.’ Or the argument is raised that the ‘victim is a troublemaker,’ or that ‘she has a bone to pick,’ or ‘she’s crazy,’ or ‘she’s nasty.’ Immediately, the accused man is exonerated and the female victim is vilified and accused of making a false allegation. Why? Because the unregulated online sperm donor community gives rise to a macho sexualised culture, which condones all forms of violence against women, whilst supporting rape and sexual assault as legitimate ways to impregnate women.
Let’s face it, which woman wants to explain to her child/ren that the man who ‘kindly’ helped mummy have a baby was later prosecuted for being a sex offender?
Mothers of children fathered by the accused may vocally step forth too. But their motivations for offering support and defending the accused whilst simultaneously striving to silence the voice of the abused are clearly more personal. Such women are fundamentally striving to protect and preserve the imagery and reputation of their child/ren’s ‘donor’ father. Let’s face it, which woman wants to explain to her child/ren that the man who ‘kindly’ helped mummy have a baby was later prosecuted for being a sex offender? In one fail swoop, such bravery would denounce the ‘donor’ father as good and altruistic and replace this idealised sperm donor image with that of a serious criminal responsible for commission sexual offences upon vulnerable women. Those women whom strive to defend sex offending sperm ‘donors’ in a bid to protect their own children’s sense of identity are guilty of cowardice and they lack any sense of humanitarian or civic duty; not only do they remove vital support for victims, but they similarly allow sex offending ‘sperm donors’ to target other women.
Of course, that is just one factor leading women to protect the accused. Some women who have engaged in AI (artificial insemination) or sexual activity with the accused whilst endeavouring to conceive have either experienced a normal encounter, or should they have been sexually assaulted, they may not have defined the act as such. Let’s face it; accepting that one has been sexually assaulted or raped opens up a can of unpleasant worms. It means that the person we once trusted now needs to be re-framed as a sexual offender. That can be a giant psychological leap in the event of being the victim of a serious crime. It also opens the door as to whether he ought to be reported to the police. Such decisions occur in circumstances few understand – the unregulated world of Internet sperm donation. Let us not forget the issue too of fear and retribution, which at its most basic level can lead women to remain silent, or even prompt some to give the appearance of outwardly supporting the accused.
In time, however, it is hoped that more women will come forth and report sex offenders operating within the cyber sperm donor community. Those women, whom demonstrate such courage and bravery by reporting offences to the police, are taking a decisive step towards protecting other women (and potentially children too).
10th February 2016. The date has yet to arrive, but when it does, it shall represent a historic moment for the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation. For the past year, we have been working towards establishing a helpline to offer peer support, advice and information, for women who have used, or, are considering using, unregulated sperm donor websites or social media, such as Facebook, to have a baby. The Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation is non-judgmental and knows only too well that every woman’s journey is different and that there are many reasons that lead women online to find a sperm donor. Perhaps the two greatest reasons motivating women to go online comprise, 1) the high costs associated with fertility clinics for donor insemination, 2) the desire to get to know the ‘donor’ father.
Women considering using online sperm donor sites often envisage an uncomplicated, straightforward, and safe journey to motherhood. Whilst some women do find that to be the case, many others do not. This is an online community where violence, particularly sexual violence, is completely normalised. It is also a culture where men routinely strive to father vast numbers of children, irrespective of the profound child welfare issues, whilst at the same time frequently going to great lengths to conceal their true identity.
Our helpline will be there to offer women a listening ear, peer support, as well as information and advice on all aspects of using unregulated online sperm donor sites.
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.