The sperm kings of America are exhausted.
These men are flying all over the place. They are shipping their sperm with new vial systems and taking the latest DNA tests because that is what women want now.
Sure, they can talk on the phone, but they say it has to be quick because they are driving to Dallas or Kansas City or Portland, Maine, in time for an ovulation window. They would like to remind me they have day jobs.
"People are fed up with sperm banks," said Kyle Gordy, 29, who lives in Malibu, California.
He invests in real estate but spends most of his time donating his sperm, free (except for the cost of travel), to women.
He also runs a nearly 11,000-member private Facebook group, Sperm Donation USA, which helps women connect with a roster of hundreds of approved donors. His donor sperm has sired 35 children, with five more on the way, he said.
"They realise this isn't some taboo any more," Gordy said.
If you are one of the roughly 141 million Americans whose body produces sperm, the substance likely seems abundant and cheap. For the rest of us, it is very much neither.
That has always been true, especially if one is discerning. But now, the coronavirus pandemic is creating a shortage, sperm banks and fertility clinics said. Men have stopped going in as much to donate, even as demand has stayed steady at some banks and increased rapidly at others.
"We've been breaking records for sales since June worldwide, not just in the US — we've broken our records for England, Australia and Canada," said Angelo Allard, compliance supervisor of Seattle Sperm Bank, one of the country's biggest sperm banks.
He said his company was selling 20 per cent more sperm now than a year earlier, even as supplies dwindled.
"Between our three locations, I'll usually have 180 unique donors donating," Allard said.
"I'm down to 117. The other month it was 80. I don't have any indication it's going to be a positive trend."
Michelle Ottey, director of operations at Fairfax Cryobank, another large sperm bank, said demand was up for access to its catalogue for online sperm shopping because "people are seeing that there is the possibility of more flexibility in their lives and work".
"I also think part of it is people are trying to find some hope right now," she added.
The scarcity has people on edge. Many are annoyed.
"Will there be any new donors soon?" someone with the handle BabyV2021 recently wrote on the online forum for California Cryobank, one of the world's biggest sperm banks.
"It seems like the donor supply has been dwindling," wrote another, who had the handle sc_cal.
And so in the capitalist crunch, Sperm World — the world of people buying and selling sperm — has gotten wild. Donors are going direct to customers. They meet with prospective mothers-to-be in Airbnbs for an afternoon handoff; Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members have sprung up.
The reason I know this at all is simple enough: I am 32 years old, partnered to a woman, stuck at home and in the market for the finest sperm I can get.
'People want college-educated sperm'
When I started talking to sperm banks last spring, they were already concerned about supply.
Reliable numbers are tough to find in Sperm World. A 2010 estimate put the number of children born by donor sperm in the United States at anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 a year, though some advocates push back even on that range, saying there are no dependable figures because there is no regulation. Sperm banking itself was about a US$4 billion (NZ$5.5b) industry in 2018.
There have always been infertile straight couples in need of donor sperm, but with the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the rise of elective single motherhood, the market has expanded over the past decade.
About 20 per cent of US sperm bank clients are heterosexual couples, 60 per cent are gay women, and 20 per cent are single mums by choice, the banks said.
To meet this demand, men provided sperm at a steady rate for years, some banks said.
But the coronavirus changed things. Existing donors were scared to go in. New donor sign-ups stopped for months during lockdown and never really bounced back at some banks. Several banks said they had a lot of old frozen sperm in storage, but it could last only so long.
"Donor recruiting is a growing challenge," said Scott Brown, vice president of strategic alliances for California Cryobank. "And I would definitely say people are still very interested in having children."
Many people also want smart sperm. That's why some big banks are near elite colleges. They have sperm collection centres in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard.
College men are one of the most reliable groups to see the potential chaos of creating maybe 50 biological children around the world in exchange for about US$4000 over several months — and decide it is a good deal.
A donor would usually go to a bank once or twice a week over months to produce enough sperm to sell to dozens of families.
"A lot of their recruiting goes on around fraternities, but fraternities aren't getting together," said Rosanna Hertz, chair of women's and gender studies at Wellesley College and co-author of Random Families, a book on donor conception.
"People want college-educated sperm, so to speak."
So banks were getting desperate. One recruiter told me that she had started advertising at outdoor trails since gyms were closed. A sales representative at another sperm bank said he was hoping management might offer cash bonuses to attract donors, but that his bosses were worried about setting a precedent.
Another reason the banks were struggling was that they follow strict Food and Drug Administration rules. Sperm has to be quarantined for six months after a donation, and men have to return each time a batch is released and be blood tested.
Most of the banks have limits so a donor cannot give to more than 25 or 30 families, to prevent widespread genetic concerns down the line. The donors are always unknown to the recipient families, identified by numbers. Almost all banks now offer the men's childhood photos. Some have adult photos.
Countries like England and Australia make it illegal to pay sperm donors significant amounts of money. In the United States, the FDA does not set a financial limit, but it regulates sperm donation the way it does all tissue donation.
A donor must consent of his own free will, without coercion. The banks follow the American Society for Reproductive Medicine guidance that payment should not be a donor's primary motivation.
"We are not paying them for their sperm, as you cannot purchase or sell human tissue," Allard said, adding that the payments are technically reimbursements for time and travel.
Allard said Seattle Sperm Bank was doing everything it could to make itself safe for the men who were still around. Only six are allowed to donate each hour, versus the dozen or so who might have popped in before. They are given temperature checks and the standard battery of Covid-19 screening questions. Everyone wears a mask, though the men can remove it when they make their deposit.
Despite supply problems, the demand for pandemic babies seems insatiable. I wrote to the fertility centre Kindbody, which has six locations around the country and specialises in IVF, or in vitro fertilisation.
"Kindbody's patient volume has increased by over 30 per cent compared to pre-Covid levels," wrote Rebecca Silver, director of marketing. She said Kindbody had heard from women that donors they liked were all sold out or had wait lists.
Allard said he had recently offered 35 vials produced by a particularly handsome blue-eyed, black-haired male, which is a rare combination.
"I put him up at 6.30am, and he was gone before 10am," Allard said. "We'd never seen that before."
The price of sperm remains the same: high. Each vial from a premium US bank can cost up to US$1100. The bank guarantees a vial will have 10 million or 15 million total motile sperm. Each month, during ovulation, a prospective mother (or her doctor) unthaws a vial and injects the sperm.
The recommendation is to buy four or five vials per desired child, since it can easily take a few months of trying to get pregnant. And since donors sell out fast, if a woman wants two children with the same donor, she needs to be ready with about US$10,000.
"A lot of people have been waiting for their lives to slow down to start their family, and now that's happened," Allard said. "Some of them might be thinking it will be easier to raise a child while working from home. I can tell you, though, I have three kids, and it is not easier."
Contacting the megadonors
As people have been fighting over remaining sperm at the banks, thousands of women have been trying to find another way.
In the past six months, many have joined Facebook groups to look for the off-brand megadonors, the sperm kings. These guys have no family limit. They do not pay much attention to FDA rules.
They can also give would-be parents something that sperm banks cannot: their names. While most banks don't release identities until the children turn 18, if at all, these men are "known sperm donors".
Almost all of them offer their sperm free.
The change started happening a few years ago. Technology had already revolutionised how the sperm and egg donor world worked, with cheap and popular DNA tests making donor anonymity a farce. Now social media and a comfort with Tinder-like swiping and Uber-like simplicity were ushering in another revolution to bypass the sperm banks altogether.
Apps for finding donors, like Modamily and Just a Baby, popped up. So did Known Donor Registry, where some 50,000 members arrange the giving and receiving of sperm. Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members — where men will post pictures of themselves, often with their own children — began advertising themselves to interested parties.
On these Facebook groups, particularly handsome men are bombarded in the comments by dozens of women.
Within three hours of one recent post from a 5-foot-9, 28-year-old nurse, who said he was "of English descent but tans like a Greek", there was Megan writing, "Hi Jack, we have messaged you." And Lindsay: "Hi Jack, I've messaged you." And Sonia: "Hi Jack I'd like to have a chat."
It can get overwhelming.
"I really didn't come on here to be a pez dispenser-style donor," one donor wrote recently, explaining why he would be more discerning and might be slower responding to requests.
Others advertise their smarts. John in Arizona wrote: "I have a 1400 chess rating and am an analyst. I have a peaceful demeanour and high spirits. I exercise regularly, prefer rollerblades."
Most donors specify that they will donate only through AI, artificial insemination. Some will also donate via NI, natural insemination, or sex. The line between altruism and a sexual kink can get murky quickly and raises safety questions.
The legal risk for both parties — risk that a mother will ask the donor for child support, and risk that a donor will want custody — is high, and the laws around this are not consistent in every state. The women who turn to Facebook groups for sperm tend to be unable to afford traditional sperm banks.
Some in the known-donor world can also become territorial, claiming certain geographic regions and ousting new men who try donating to women in those areas. Two of the biggest sperm donor Facebook groups — Sperm Donation USA and USA Sperm Donation — are in a cold war with each other.
"You can end up developing some disturbing dynamics," said Hertz, the Wellesley professor, who has studied these communities.
Many of the known donors use relatively inexpensive sperm shipping tools like Natal Donor or sperm analysis and storage firms like Dadi Kit. They also use consumer-friendly DNA tests like 23andMe or CircleDNA, which offer close to sperm-bank-level genetic testing to assure women that the donor's genes do not carry mutations.
Elaine Raby Byrd, 37, a kindergarten teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, said she had used a donor from one of the major Facebook groups and was in her "two-week wait", the weeks after insemination but before she can take an accurate pregnancy test.
"I get to pick who I want genetically rather than picking somebody who randomly I met," she said.
It also means, Byrd said, that she can choose a donor who is smarter and more attractive than someone she meets romantically day to day.
"You can't just force anybody to marry you," she said. "I'm very independent."
'Our babies cost $136 each'
There are now "known sperm donor" influencers.
One is Kayla Ellis, 27, a stay-at-home mother of one in the Midwest. She and her wife found their donor on Just a Baby in 2019.
They talked for weeks, though she kept her location secret just in case. She tracked her ovulation, and when it was time, they went to a bank (a financial one) to get an agreement notarised, then to a family friend's Airbnb that was gifted to them for the occasion. There they transferred semen via a cup.
"We were able to comfortably support children, but we couldn't afford the crazy financial strain that IVF and sperm banks would cost," Ellis said. "So we started looking elsewhere."
Now she has a TikTok account devoted to "how to conceive a child through private sperm donation, track ovulation and how to talk to donors". It has over 91,000 followers. And she and her wife are pregnant with their second child — same donor, same notary, same free Airbnb.
"Our babies cost $136 each," Ellis said.
Probably the most famous superdonor is Ari Nagel, who has been going direct to consumer for over a decade. A charming professor in New York City, he gives his sperm quite freely and has a handful of paternity suits to show for it.
He is currently in Zimbabwe donating, then headed to Nigeria. He said he had 15 women pregnant across the United States at the moment.
But in the pandemic, it has all become bigger.
"I'd like to know and have that peace of mind for myself that the child is going to a good home, instead of someone picking from a clinic and you don't know who they are," said Adam Hooper, who founded Sperm Donation Australia, which has 9800 members and is a hub for finding free known sperm donors. His group has gained more than 3000 members since the lockdowns started in March.
"When a pandemic is happening, is it human instinct to want to reproduce?" Hooper said.
Many of the donors and their interested recipients talk about loneliness. The men often do not have families of their own but think their genes deserve to survive. They worry that won't happen. Many of the women are single mums by choice.
"I have a strong desire to know my genes have been passed on," one donor recently wrote on Just a Baby. "Like many of us, I'm not in a position to do so at the moment nor do I foresee this is in the near future."
One popular 30-year-old donor in Sperm Donation USA uses a pseudonym, Jacob San, since he worries about the impact on his career.
"At first I just wanted to get my numbers up," he said, meaning the number of children he could produce in the world. "But after three or four, that faded.
"Now I have this vision of me being in my 50s and 60s, and I have a large dinner table, and I'm inviting all my donor kids to join me for dinner to tell me their stories, their journeys," he continued. "I want to hear all of their adventures. This is the thing that pushes me."
A donor on Known Donor Registry told me that he used to donate to a big sperm bank but that it was too clinical and cold. He wanted to know who was buying his sperm, and wanted to feel that the recipients would raise the offspring well. So now he gives it away to people he talks to first.
He told me his real name. He has an Ivy League MBA and a sweet smile. We have mutual friends on Facebook. By the end of the chat, he had offered me sperm.
Written by: Nellie Bowles
Photographs by: Grant Hindsley, Cody James, AJ Mast
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES