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).
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.
The Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation is running a poster campaign to highlight the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by men using Internet sperm donor websites.
Sadly, the online sperm donor community is characterised by a profound rape culture where many men believe it is acceptable to rape or to sexually assault women during the ‘donation process.’ Such violence, however, is not confined to conception; women are also being sexually abused during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.
The thing about cyber life is that sperm donors often use numerous aliases – both male and female – to conceal their true identity. This ultimately means that it can be most difficult to obtain an accurate account of their character and whether they are safe to have a child with. It is imperative for women to remember also that just because some women had a good experience with a man they met via an Internet sperm donor website does not translate into the next woman having a similar experience. Sperm donors do not sexually assault or rape every women they meet; they are selective and tend to target victims carefully.
Teenage girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to the abuse committed by men using Internet sperm donor websites, and not least since the online/offline male culture blurs the lines between consensual and non-consensual sex.
The bottom line is that without consent, it is either sexual assault or rape.