Being a Sperm Donor: Masculinity, Sexuality and Biosociality in Denmark. Sebastian Mohr. New York: Berghahn Books, 2018, 198 pp.
For some time now, Denmark has been at the forefront of developments in fertility treatments. Among European countries, Denmark has the greatest proportion of babies born through assisted reproductive technologies—an estimated 10%, compared, for example, to less than 2% in the United States. Danish fertility clinics perform the largest number of treatment cycles on average per capita annually, of both donor insemination and in vitro fertilization. The country also has some of the world’s biggest sperm banks, with many of their semen specimens sold abroad (e.g., in the United Kingdom, about half of imported sperm comes from Denmark). With a relatively high societal acceptance of sperm donation and donor conception, coupled with supportive legislation, the country has played a major role in expanding reproductive health services and creating a profitable global industry.
It was in this national and cultural context that Sebastian Mohr conducted his ethnographic fieldwork in 2011–2013, when he interviewed sperm donors and observed organizational practices at three Danish sperm banks. As the book documents, being a sperm donor is a complex undertaking. In what Mohr describes as a “strict ejaculatory regimen” (p. 16), men who donate their semen need to commit to doing so over a long period of time and on a regular basis (at least once a week), abstaining from having sex 48 hours before each donation, undergoing multiple health tests and masturbating “on demand.” In his analysis, Mohr focuses his attention on “the everyday lives of sperm donors” (p. 7) to better understand how the men justify this commitment and what it tells us about the complicated relationship between biomedicine, masculinity, and sexuality.
“The point of departure for this book,” writes Mohr, “is the argument that being a sperm donor in contemporary Denmark represents a microcosmos of what it means to be a man in a biomedical day and age” (pp. 3–4). Two theoretical concepts provide focus points for navigating this microcosmos. The first is the “enticement of gender,” which Mohr explains as a pleasure of, and a desire for, gender normativity—“the performativity of gender as a lustful experience of the self” (p. 7). The second is “biosocial subjectivation,” explained as a persistent invocation of the self through “biomedical registers and biopolitical valuations” (p. 23). Both concepts describe overlapping processes that, according to Mohr, are at the heart of what allows men to overcome possible inhibitions about sperm donation so that donating sperm can become “a morally acceptable part of their everyday life” (p. 48).
Where the enticement of gender and biosocial subjectivation mechanisms are most evident is perhaps in Chapter 3, in which Mohr discusses examples of “boosted masculinity.” As the chapter explains, knowing and being reminded through regular blood tests and physical exams that one is healthy and has good genes can boost men’s feelings of self-worth. So can being aware of one’s exceptionally high sperm count—which is needed to ensure that enough sperm cells survive the freezing process—and the fact that only a small minority of men have sperm quality that is good enough for them to qualify as donors. We hear, for instance, from Oliver, a single man in his 20s, who used to have an image of himself as weak and vulnerable because he was never good at sports and was often sick as a child. Now, donating sperm for less than a year, Oliver feels like he is, “even though it sounds weird, part of an elite:” “I am healthier than the average person, I have high semen quality, and I feel more attractive in some way” (p. 81).
Throughout the book, we learn about other aspects of how adherence to both gender normativity and medical regimens makes sperm donors “biosocial subjects.” Chapter 2 explores how the men’s reasoning relies on “claiming recognizable positions inside a gendered moral order” that includes “three prominent figures”: “the loving son, the caring father, and the responsible husband” (p. 53). The prominence of responsibility in sperm donors’ moral reasoning is further examined in Chapter 4, which shows how they “take the endeavor of sperm donation seriously” (p. 108) by considering the future children they help conceive. What is interesting in their ability to capture the ethical conundrums of assisted reproduction are the varied interpretations of what being responsible involves, evidenced in the different perspectives of men who have opted to donate their sperm anonymously and those who decided to have their anonymity lifted.
Being a Sperm Donor is a theoretically elaborate book with some intriguing data and illuminating case studies, which shed light on the complexity of sperm donors’ experiences and motivations. The book will be of interest to scholars working on reproductive technologies, and it may appeal to graduate students in medical anthropology, medical sociology, gender studies, social theory, and science and technology studies. In a field where most empirical studies have focused on the perspectives of women and couples who are recipients of donor sperm, Mohr’s research is a welcome contribution that brings to the fore stories that are rarely heard.