Romancing the Sperm: Shifting Biopolitics and the Making of Modern Families

Romancing the Sperm: Shifting Biopolitics and the Making of Modern Families. Diane Tober, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019, 240 pp.

For the last few decades, anthropologists have made key contributions to scholarship on the sociocultural implications of assisted reproductive technologies. This work provides critical ethnographic insights into ongoing debates around changing meanings of family, parenthood, and life itself. In Romancing the Sperm, Diane Tober offers a refreshing take on one such assisted reproductive technology—sperm donation—by taking a retrospective approach and illuminating sperm donation practices and family making in the 1990s. In doing so, Tober’s monograph sheds light on contemporary family making in the present moment by illuminating the “lesbian baby boom” and the rise of Single Mothers by Choice at the end of the 20th century.

Tober bases her analysis on in-depth interviews with women who conceived or attempted to conceive with donor sperm, professionals working in the sperm banking industry, and sperm bank donors. The research took place over several periods of time, and Tober describes how her own path to parenthood overlapped with this long-term project; as she notes, “creating this book took as long as raising my sons to adulthood” (p. xv). In doing so, she calls attention to the perspective of time, offering a fresh reading of shifts in family formation and reproductive technologies that have occurred over more than two decades.

The book’s primary purpose is to highlight the social life of technology at four levels of analysis: (1) women seeking motherhood; (2) men providing sperm; (3) the reproductive and sperm-banking industries; and (4) the shifting regulatory landscape surrounding reproductive politics. Chapters explore intersections among these different levels to examine “the complex interactions between technology, culture, and sexuality in what has been one of the most contested arenas of public debate—the creation of (alternative) families” (p. 13).

Tober’s overarching goal is to show how these interactions “challenge prevailing social conventions and illuminate areas of conformity, resistance, and agency” (p. 13), and she ably achieves this through vivid portrayals and analysis of the wide range of actors involved in sperm donation. Ultimately, this is a story about the creation of alternative families, and perhaps the strongest contribution of the book comes in her multilayered analysis, which uses the theme of “romancing” to shed light on the human connections at the heart of sperm donation, even when donors and recipients may never meet. Put another way: by showing the ways in which romance, fantasy, and fetish all figure into family making, Tober illustrates the personal aspects of family making at the heart of extremely depersonalized and detached processes of assisted reproduction.

A major focus of the book is the question of how the family is constructed. While much scholarship on assisted reproduction has examined the impact of technology on notions of kinship and family, Tober offers a critical interpretation of how far society has come, while also illustrating the challenges and threats that remain for same-sex couples who face stigma and structural barriers. Sited in the San Francisco Bay Area—an area known for its liberal politics and acceptance of diverse lifestyle choices, in a state that’s been called the “wild west” of assisted reproduction—Tober’s ethnography shows how the experiences of same-sex couples and single women cannot be assumed a priori; indeed, many of these actors continue to face obstacles in gaining legal rights to parentage and access to services.

One of the most provocative aspects of the book is Tober’s analysis of the process of choosing a sperm donor. Tober argues that the choices women make reflect what she calls “grassroots eugenics.” Here, individual choices are represented as idiosyncratic, reflecting diverse reasons for why a prospective sperm donor may be selected or rejected. Grassroots eugenics are not the same as traditional eugenics, Tober argues, which are rooted in a “racist paradigm in which some people are considered less worthy to reproduce than others” (p. 5). Instead, grassroots eugenics has a more “liberal twist” (p. 72), in that it emerges from the view that women have the right to “to choose their families in very specific ways, through donor selection” (p. 72). Indeed, she explicitly calls attention to the ways in which recipients may, in fact, challenge racist, sexist, and heteronormative patriarchal models, as in the example of women who deliberately sought sperm from gay donors.

In another example, a couple explained that they could not have imagined a donor who “seemed too nerdy” or “didn’t drink coffee or something,” leading to their decision to select a donor who was a “doctor, six foot four, played basketball, and drank coffee” (p. 75). Other examples reveal how recipients aim to choose a donor with specific traits, to “stack the deck” in favor of creating a child with particular traits. As Tober outlines, “People do not wish to have a child who is not their type, any more than one would want to have a partner who is not one’s type” (p. 75). Here, however, Tober’s analysis could have been further strengthened with a deeper discussion of the ways in which these choices nonetheless represent discomfiting reliance on beliefs that some social qualities can be genetically inherited. Though Tober acknowledges that grassroots eugenics still conforms to mainstream ideas about the valuation of certain characteristics such as height or education, a more critical consideration of key questions about grassroots eugenics would have advanced Tober’s analysis even further. In other words, how do industry norms that offer recipients the opportunity to choose the genetic donor counteract larger ethical and social questions about the ways in which donors are valued based on non-heritable qualities? What are the stakes in reinforcing the notion that sperm transmits not only genetic traits (hair color, eye color, etc.) but also social characteristics and ethnic identity?

This concern notwithstanding, one of the book’s main strengths is its rich ethnographic focus; the book is replete with long, extended quotations and excerpts from interviews that reveal the depth and nuance of Tober’s interlocutors’ motivations and experiences. The care with which Tober addresses the multiple perspectives of the actors involved in sperm donation is impressive, and readers will come away with a much more nuanced and complex understanding of the lives, concerns, and experiences of people involved in sperm donation.

A central question that underlies the book is: “How does the use of reproductive technologies both conform to and upend societal standards and stigmas, as well as lead to reformulations and reconstitutions of family, beyond both social and biological categories?” (p. 187). This is not a new question for medical anthropologists who study assisted reproduction, yet this book offers new analytical and ethnographic insight into the cultural practices and processes that inform family making through sperm donation. The book will be useful to scholars and students interested in broader historical perspectives on assisted reproduction, and its clear language and readability will make it appealing in undergraduate courses in medical anthropology, science, technology, and society, kinship and family, and gender and sexuality.

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