👶 Would you trust a sperm donor from social media?
Staying safe when your only fertility path is online
👶 What it’s like to seek a sperm donor on Facebook
🚗 Can we regulate social media like cars?
Today we start by excerpting an original story from New_ Public Magazine by Aleks Krotoski, a journalist, social psychologist, and New_ Public contributing editor. Her question: “Can you trust the internet for sperm?” takes us inside the world of online sperm donation, where the norms of digital spaces have literally life-changing stakes. Afterward, a discussion of the “social media is like cars” analogy. Buckle up.
Can you trust the internet for sperm?
Navigating the tricky world of online sperm donation
When Katherine and her partner Eric decided they wanted to have a baby, they knew that their route to conception would be complicated. Katherine already had three kids from a previous relationship, and so knew she was able to conceive through the traditional means, but Eric was transitioning trans masculine.
Their income from manual jobs in a rural US state wasn’t enough to foot the bill for an expensive sperm bank. Semen costs a lot—over $1000 per vial for top-shelf—and rarely does one round do the job. Plus, there’s the cost of artificial insemination techniques such as IVF, the cost to keep the specimens on ice, and payments to secure any backup vials to conceive future siblings. Without a friend willing to give up the goods, Katherine and Eric had only one place to go: the internet.
They were far from alone. For years, increasing numbers of people have sourced privately donated sperm from a decentralized network of websites and social media groups around the world. Many of these people are excluded from traditional fertility pathways because they are gay, single, POC, old, or poor. Others choose this path because they want to see the person contributing half of their child’s DNA. Some reports suggest that the number of people going online for sperm has risen dramatically during the pandemic, as donations to cryobanks have fallen because of lockdown-related restrictions.
The US fertility industry is regulated by three governmental agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which collects and publishes data produced by researchers and clinicians on fertility procedures, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which controls the approval and use of drugs and testing of biological and technical products, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees lab testing. This regulated, hyper-medicalized process ultimately presents recipients a choice of donors with squeaky clean, anonymized sperm whose fact sheets are written up like dating profiles.
Outside of the state-vetted system, so many things can go wrong: STDs, genetic disorders, harassment, sexual abuse. Without official oversight, donors and recipients have had to devise their own systems to stay safe. There is no single solution—but what has become clear in these decentralized digital marketplaces is that accountability and trust between the people using, operating, and moderating them makes a huge difference.
Online sperm exchanges are not new. Some long-in-the-tooth donors recall dipping their toes into the marketplace in 2008, when the only game around was Craigslist. From what they have told me, it was a distinctly unsavory option. There were more people looking for no-frills sex for themselves than hoping to create a human being. Other prominent networks began to emerge as early as 2009, finding a welcome audience in existing informal networks of lesbian couples and single mothers-by-choice. In the US, people seeking donors began to coalesce around a site called the Known Donor Registry, or KDR, launched in 2010.
KDR was founded by donor recipient Beth Gardiner. It was part marketplace, part gathering place: there were ads by people seeking and providing sperm, and they exchanged samples on mutually agreed upon terms. The private exchanges were not governed by health-related regulations from any jurisdiction, nor were there specially-trained mediators to help with the process of conception. As Gardiner once said, “If it’s legal to go to a bar, get drunk, and sleep with a random stranger, then it can’t possibly be illegal to provide clean, healthy sperm in a cup.”
Any woman who’s been on the internet for minutes knows that it’s full of creeps. The online sperm donation networks are, unsurprisingly, a magnet to them. According to one analysis from 2015, one in two women who seek sperm online through sperm donation websites or social networks experience some form of abuse, from harassment to sexual assault. This makes the design of these digital spaces—and the people they admit—incredibly important.
Facebook’s Ford Pinto moment?
Last month, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri infamously tried to defend his app against accusations that it was inflicting harm against children and teens by comparing social media to cars. “Cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” the app boss said. “And I think social media is similar.” The backlash was swift, with many users on Twitter pointing out that cars are regulated — and hey, maybe Facebook’s products should be too.
This week, history professor Mar Hicks took up the case for increased public oversight of tech in an essay for WIRED, comparing Big Tech to the Big Three of the US auto industry. Whistleblower revelations, Hicks wrote, have made government regulation of tech all but inevitable:
When a disaster or series of disasters mobilizes a large number of people to work together for positive change, corporations cannot ultimately win. If the Ford Pinto memo is any indication, Facebook and other major Silicon Valley corporations birthed in the early internet boom are entering the stage when public disaffection with their products provokes robust regulation, backed by a major new government enforcement agency.
But Hicks also pointed out that Detroit fought and delayed regulators for decades even as auto casualties mounted. If history is a guide, tech companies will do something similar:
When corporations can no longer deny or hide their responsibility, they use the rhetoric of cooperation to try to rewrite reality and co-opt the process—to keep regulation from hurting their massive profits or breaking up their business empires. As we enter this stage of building our 21st-century infrastructure by reorienting the powerful, centralized, and broken systems that currently threaten to undo everything from public health to free elections, we must be wary: Tech giants, now certain that regulation is coming, will cooperate just enough to ensure they don’t have to fix their metaphorical gas tanks. Like the Big Three, they will try to continue to do business as usual.
The comparison of tech to the US auto industry instills both hope and dread. Because while regulators addressed some of cars’ most glaring defects — they now have seatbelts, air bags, and non-exploding fuel tanks — these changes also legitimized generations of policies and corporate dreams that entrenched cars firmly at the center of American life. Cars won. We’re living the consequences: suburban sprawl, environmental destruction, to the tens of thousands of people killed in auto crashes every year, with no end in sight. Is this how it will go with tech?
Governments are introducing “seatbelts for the internet,” if you will: think of personal data privacy laws like California’s CCPA or the EU’s GDPR, or measures like the UK’s new online safety bill. Like making cars safer to drive, making the internet safer to use is important, and also isn’t enough. We need regulators to stop Silicon Valley from forever ruling our digital space the way Detroit remade our physical space. (We’re keeping a close eye on Congress’ antitrust bills, and the FTC’s Lina Khan.) But “Lawmaking moves at the speed of lawmaking, and tech moves at the speed of tech,” Cory Doctorow reminds us. And the hour grows late.
“(Frances) Haugen’s document leaks and Senate testimony have given greater legitimacy and impetus to those who say something has to be done. In the UK, that means clarifying and attempting to toughen up the draft online safety bill, a landmark piece of legislation that could set the tone for social media regulation around the world...This does not feel like a piece of legislation that is going to be watered down.” (The Guardian)
“Twitter still shows the metrics associated with inflammatory or aggressive behavior online, such as like counts and retweets, even though Dorsey and others have said they regret their existence.” (Bloomberg Businessweek)
“Among Grosser’s most recent works is ‘Minus’ (2021), a finite social network where users get only 100 posts for life. The platform shows how few opportunities they have left instead of how many likes and reshares they have accumulated.” (Hyperallergic)
“TikTok is, as we speak, supplanting Facebook as the main app of America. As more and more Americans begin to use TikTok, I suspect TikTok content will start to resemble Facebook content.” (Garbage Day)
Hoping “sperm” didn’t get this email flagged as spam,
Wilfred Chan (subbing for Josh this week.)