Egg vs. Sperm: Culture in Supply and Demand

In this week’s Life section on Salon, my brilliant friend Mandy interviews Rene Almeling, assistant professor of sociology at Yale and author of Sex Cells, a book analysing trends in the egg and sperm market.

For those that haven’t had occasion to notice, donor-density in the egg and sperm market has increased noticeably since the onset of what is fashionably called ‘the economic downturn:

In 2009, some sperm banks saw a 15 to 20 percent increase in applicants, while, in 2008, egg agencies reported a similar rise — including, at one company, a 40 percent increase in wannabe egg providers.

Egg and sperm donors provide, structurally, the same commodity. Why then, asks Mandy, has Dr. Almeling uncovered considerable difference in the screening practises of sperm and egg banks? The answer, according Dr. Almeling and common sense, is that both institutions are scouting for the most saleable commodity. And the culturally-defined parameters of value are vastly different for men and women. For example:

Sperm banks usually require that men be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall. Egg agencies don’t set height minimums. Most sperm banks require that men be enrolled in college or have a college degree. Egg agencies do not… egg donors must conform to rigorous height and weight ratios, but sperm donors do not*.

But this screening is for the consumer-side PR of the banks. Working within a certain culture, one can see how they would aim to provide a commodity tailored to appeal most to consumers from that culture. Almeling’s research, however, uncovers a disturbing — and, it must be said, remarkably irrational and delusional — trend in these banks’ second, in-house screening process.

The sex cell industry, it appears, buys its own gendered pitch wholesale, and insists on weeding out those suppliers who do not fit the ideals of male and female donor personae. As the selfless and nurturing gender, female donations must be rooted in altruism. The male donor, however, should be motivated by the opportunity of making a quick buck for zero effort. The interview does not mention what happens to deviant males, but non-altruistic female donors — who admit they like the money — have their applications immediately tossed.

Of course, according to Almeling’s interviews, all donors, irrespective of gender, are primarily motivated by the money they can earn from sex cell donation. As the people who shell out this money, banks must know this. By only picking women who say they have no interest in the money, and then going ahead and paying them anyway, they must realise they’re institutionalising dishonesty, and making quite entertaining fools of themselves. This, however, has not deterred them so far.

Indeed, most banks have gone a step ahead and made psych. evaluations necessary for egg donors, further increasing the cost of female donations. This requirement is based on the assumption that women have greater attachment to their biological children than do men, and need plushier cushions to soften the blow of giving them up. Of course, what female donors are actually giving up are unfertilised eggs, that may or may not become one half the genetic material of a child someday, but biology and reality are apparently irrelevant to the procurement account.

Read the interview, people. It’s insightful, and the insights are very entertaining. But above the fun, I like it because it proves my long-held and often dismissed thesis: ‘the market’, as we crudely understand it, is built of factors much varied — and much more interesting — than rational acts of dispassionate maximisation. The economy is not a rarefied sphere of disconnected stats and concepts. It is a deeply organic institution, shaped and changed by our heterogeneous cultural and social institutions, and by expectations we cannot escape because its profitable to offer the familiar, homogenised and comfortable to us on a perpetual loop.

*Almeling clarifies the last is to conform with medical requirements of optimised fertility, but medical opinions is not necessarily free of cultural influence.

5 Responses to Egg vs. Sperm: Culture in Supply and Demand

  1. ” most banks have gone a step ahead and made psych. evaluations necessary for egg donors, further increasing the cost of female donations. This requirement is based on the assumption that women have greater attachment to their biological children than do men”

    -I think the reason is different. Women go through intensive and very dangerous hormone treatments before eggs can be harvested. THis is why women get paid up to $50,000 for donations. In this country, at least, men never get paid more than $50 for sperm. Their motivation to donate is completely unclear to me.

    • Priyanka says:

      Rationally, this sounds like a more viable option. But if this is why psych. evaluations are administered, it is utterly bizarre for the banks to tell the researcher they do it because parting with possible future children is more traumatic for men than for women. Do you think they lied, for strange and dubious ends?

      Or do you, as I do, believe they’ve constructed reasons more viable with their constructs of masculinity and femininity, than acknowledge the less ideologically viable truth?

      • I think as you do but I’ve been too exhausted recently to put it in such a beautiful phrase. I think that only too often people speak from their gender mythology than from what reason suggests to them.

        Sleep, where art thou? :-)

  2. Z says:

    I am resisting looking up info right now but it’s possible that the hormone treatments could mess up fertility / the combination of that and the invasive procedure of getting the eggs.

    Very interesting though, your larger analysis and points.

    • Priyanka says:

      Thank you. And though I know you’re crunched for time, I would *definitely* cheerlead a fact-finding (or opinion-finding) mission re. the actual effectiveness of hormonal/fertility treatments :-)

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