Gender and Gamete Providers: A Counterstory Or What Happens When You Treat Men More LIke Women?

A couple of days ago I put up a post about the work of Professor Rene Almeling.  Though I haven’t received the book yet (it is on order) in the interview I linked to she discussed ways in which the appeals made to male and female gamete providers are different and how different treatment throughout the process–beyond the obvious ones–reinforce the differential appeals.  In a nutshell, the appeal to women is centered on altruism while that to men is all about the money.    (It’s really worth reading that earlier post.)   With that in mind, this story struck me as particularly noteworthy.

A bit of background:   You may remember that there are consistent reports of a sperm shortage in the UK–I’ve written about it more than once.   While the shortage seems real enough, the reasons for it are obscure and reporting on it has frequently frustrated me.  The most commonly reported reason is the shift in UK law that requires that information about sperm providers eventually be made available to children conceived using third-party sperm, but the timing seems off, since the number of sperm donors generally has actually risen since implementation of that law.

In any event, it is in this context that this story from the Ottawa Citizen appears.   It’s about one UK clinic that seems to be running against the UK trend.

[W]ithin a year the London Sperm Bank has become the biggest in the U.K. In  that time it has had more than 3,000 applicants, whittled down to 124 top-notch  donors, who have produced more than 2,000 vials. This clinic alone has enough  stocks to supply half the annual treatment cycles in the U.K. Half a dozen new  donors attend each day. They have performed something of a miracle.

Of course the question is “What makes this clinic different?”  And the answer (at least according to the reporter) takes me back to Professor Almeling’s work.  (It also leads me to revisit some of what I’ve written before about the market economy for gametes.)   Consider this quote from the article:

 Our men are not better remunerated, but better treated. We get men who’d never  have come forward before.”

What this means is that it isn’t all about the money.   If you read through the article it seems to me that what the London Sperm Bank does (and that’s a link to the bank for anyone who wants to go and look) is treat men who might provide sperm a bit more like women who are considering offering their eggs.   What I mean is that it appeals to men’s altruistic instincts as well as (or instead of?) their economic ones.

I don’t think this means that the market analysis stuff goes out the window.    It just means that, as is so often the case, people value more than just dollars (or pounds.)   Thus, by focussing on the non-monetary rewards a man who offers sperm might find, you increase the perceived benefits of being a sperm provider.   And you increase them most for the men who are most altruistic.   Thus, as the clinic says, you get different men coming forward.   And, I have to say, I think you probably get better men.

I mean better here not in the sense that they are better physical specimens, but in that they are more thoughtful about what they are doing and its implications.  They aren’t just in it for the cash.  And this, I surmise, will make them better able to manage the complexities of any relationships that might result from providing the sperm.   (It also looks to me like they are older, and a bit of maturity wouldn’t hurt here.)

It’s really fascinating.  Perhaps men and women are not so different–we just think they are?  Maybe men are altruistic just as women are–if we give them a chance to show that?

All that said, there’s plenty of other material in the Ottawa Citizen article that might give people pause.  Consider this–for women who are not looking to match a partner’s characteristics, the most important donor characteristic is height.   Is that the evidence of designer babies people are always looking for?   A few days ago the story all over was about one clinic’s rejection of red-headed men.  I suspect we should be more concerned (if we are concerned at all) about short men.

6 responses to “Gender and Gamete Providers: A Counterstory Or What Happens When You Treat Men More LIke Women?

  1. Julie – some women might donate for altruistic reasons, but some are in it for the plain old hard cash and lots of it at that. I think the altruistic reasons are promoted and the reality demoted.

    Tell me that wouldn’t go a long way to paying off university debt…

    • You won’t get an argument from me on this point. I think the observation is that the appeal made to egg providers often contains more altruistic content than does that made to sperm providers. I don’t think anyone is contending that this is always true with all appeals and certainly with the one you linked to it looks to be mostly about money.

  2. the “altruism” pitch really ticks me off. The donors are fed images of happy children and couples, when in reality they have no idea where there sperm is going or what the outcome will be. For all they know, the prospective recipient may be in an out of mental hospitals her whole life and the kid relegated to foster care. Or they may be donating to the next Nadya suleiman, who really isn’t in need of such “altruism.” Or a host of other outcomes.

    • It’s true that they don’t know who will get the sperm, but the odds are actually against the worst-case scenarios you offer. Odds are that it will be a fairly ordinary woman or couple who really want to have a child. But as you say, there’s no certainty.

      I wonder if the altruism pitch doesn’t actualy make it more likely that the provider will think about where the child might end up. (This is really the beginning of my next post.) After all, it does encourage the man to consider that there will be a child, doesn’t it?

  3. another thing is that when I was growing up, women were trained not to be selfish. So that might be another reason the “altruistic” sales pitch is amied at them. I had thought the younger generation was different, but it probably takes more time than that.
    another thing is the risks involved- there are some people who would say that no money is enought to compel them to take unnecessary risks to thejselves, but to give someone the gift of a lifetime… (see previous point about selfishness!)

    • Surely there’s a stereotype that women are more caring, which is to say altruistic. That one goes back a long way, to victorian ideals that women were better suited for raising children while men worked out in the rat-race that was economic life. Like all stereotypes, it’s self-reinforcing. I think the newer pitches towards men that are more altrustic are interesting because they offer us a new narrative. I’ll write a bit more about this later today, I think. It seems to me that emphasizing altruism might also help with the number of offspring problem.

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