In order for sperm banking to become the multimillion dollar industry that it is, sperm had first to be commodified, and since commodification is both economic and cultural, that is neither a simple nor a straightforward process. As Cynthia Daniels points out in Exposing Men, the book I’ve been reading to prepare for a talk I’ll be giving in April, there are two conditions that must be met before something can be commodified. First, it must be considered “profane” by the community in which it exists, meaning that it can be valued in monetary terms. That which is “sacred,” by contrast, is generally understood to be unique, not simply without price, but beyond our ability to put a price on it. The second characteristic of commodifiability is that the object to be commodified must be “alienable,” meaning that it can be separated from the person who owns it. What Daniels calls “reproductive assets” (85)—sperm, eggs, embryos: and it’s interesting to note that she uses the vocabulary of the market place to talk about this—have all been made to fit these conditions of commodifiability, though not completely. What’s more, the degree of commodification that has been applied to them, she argues, seems to depend in large measure on our notions of gender and the gendered lens through which we view human reproduction as a whole.
It’s not that human beings or body parts are never subject to social exchange. Marriage, adoption, and organ donation, for example, are all ways in which such exchanges take place. Nonetheless, as Daniels puts it, we tend to think of them less as commercial transactions, even when money changes hands, than as incidents of gift giving that “solidify bonds between individuals in a community.” To put it another way, we see these gifts as both existing within and producing social relationships that we actively imagine as absent from the buying and selling of products. So, for example, we generally see donated organs as carrying with them something of the social identity of the donor—not just the facts of her or his genetic/biological makeup and medical history. As a result, we recognize and value relationships that form between the donor’s family and the organ recipient, like, for example, this bride who was walked down the aisle by the man in whose chest her father’s donated heart was beating. Had the heart been purchased outright, the organ recipient would have owned it in a way that rendered the connection to the bride’s father’s identity at least irrelevant, if not entirely invisible.
Even after death, in other words, we do not consider our bodily organs totally alienable. Indeed, we resist it, even as we resist the alienability of ova and embryos and the wombs of people who agree to become surrogate mothers. In the case of surrogacy, the reasons for this resistance are obvious. The surrogate mother’s womb is still inside her body, and the specter of what it would mean fully to commodify that womb—explored in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale—is truly horrifying. In the case of ova, however, the resistance to alienability is a little more complex. After all, people born with ovaries carry many more eggs than they will ever use in a lifetime. So, even though they are not what Daniels calls “a renewable resource”—a characteristic that contributes to the relatively easy commodifiability of sperm—eggs could be bought and sold without at all compromising the future fertility of the person from whose body they were taken. Eggs might not come as cheaply as sperm—they are more difficult to obtain—but price point is not by itself an obstacle to commodification. You just have to know your market.
Eggs have been commodified, of course, at least to some degree, but the fact that there is no such thing as an “egg banking industry”—or at least that we don’t talk about it in such crassly commercial terms—suggests some discomfort with the very idea of buying and selling them. In part, Daniels asserts, this discomfort is rooted precisely in the fact that eggs are not “renewable” and that they are so much more difficult, and so much less risk-free, than sperm to obtain. Taken together, she says, these two realities lead us to see eggs more like body parts than body products, more like the heart of the bride’s father that I mentioned above, say, than, leaving sperm out of it for a moment, the blood that man might have donated to help an ailing friend or relative. Still, understanding the logic by which eggs are valued more highly than sperm does not by itself illuminate the lens through which we see and therefore create that value. It’s here that Daniels suggests gender politics come into play. “[O]va are more likely to be considered more humanly precious than sperm,” she writes, “[because] women are [considered] more central to human reproduction than men….”(87).
This idea, that our understanding of men as peripheral to human reproduction has serious consequences for how we value men and men’s bodies, is central to Daniels’ thesis. “[I]deals of masculinity,” she writes in her introduction, “have skewed the science of male reproductive health and our understanding of men’s relationship” to the perpetuation of the species. For example, she says, “[These ideals] perpetuate assumptions about the superior strength of the male body, [which] lead[s] to a profound neglect of male reproductive health [and has] implications..for how we think about not only men’s relationship to…reproduction but also broader social relations between men and women” (4). Those social relations and the gender inequalities they embody may be in flux, Daniels argues, but the inequalities themselves are also deeply and inescapably rooted in the assumption that “the [reproductive] functions…men and women perform…[along with our assumptions about their relative importance] are beyond social contestation” (5). She goes on:
I am not arguing for a denial of all biological differences between men and women in reproduction—in gestation, lactation, or even the hormonal differences between the sexes—but that these have taken on social meaning far beyond biology….I do argue that men and women are more similar than different in their contributions to reproduction and that assumptions of reproductive difference have been used to justify social, political, and economic inequalities between men and women. I argue that until assumptions of reproductive difference are challenged, gender inequities for both men and women will continue. (5)
Just to be clear, Daniels is not claiming suddenly to have discovered, for example, the Victorian notion of the separation of the spheres. Rather, she is asserting that the understanding of reproductive difference used to justify that notion still informs how we understand human reproduction today; and she is arguing that, despite the progress we have made, until we challenge our assumptions about the social meaning of male and female reproductive biology and function, the same fundamental gender inequities will persist.
To offer one relatively straightforward example that I think is in keeping with Daniels’ logic: Making women more central to reproduction than men, and women’s “reproductive assets” therefore more valuable than men’s, serves the interests of male dominance in that it makes the need to control women’s sexuality a “logical” conclusion. Indeed, an awful lot of the right wing push to roll back women’s reproductive rights and control their sexuality can be read as a push to create a modern version of the “separate spheres” that I mentioned above. In a similar vein, making men peripheral to reproduction gives a logical infrastructure to the sexual freedom men arrogate to themselves in a male dominant culture. By now, the harm such a system does to women is, or should be, obvious. The harm it does to men, however, is less so, until you consider—as Daniels does in the chapter previous to this one—that it has been essentially to protect the manhood to which that sexual freedom is so central that scientists and governments have failed to examine and address adequately the problems of male infertility.
The commodification of sperm, the mere fact that it could be commodified in the first place, is yet one more example of how we see men as peripheral to human reproduction, but this commodification is in many ways rooted in the same desire to protect manhood. Making sperm a product that can be bought outright is a way of erasing the social identity of the man from whose body it was taken, which in turn erases any social claim he might make on the child his sperm is used to produce. His anonymity—and, remember, Daniels is talking in her book (at least so far) about artificial insemination involving couples—protects the fatherhood, and therefore the manhood, of the infertile man whose sperm needed to be replaced. I don’t know where Daniels will take her argument next, but I am curious to see if there emerges from her work a different way of valuing sperm so that it’s “cheapness” is not a source of men’s alienation from our bodies and reproductive potential.