Sex Cells: The Gender Divided Market for Eggs and Sperm

BY Paul Solman  November 29, 2013 at 11:15 AM EST

Egg agencies and sperm banks, while they offer new fertility technology, have helped perpetuate old gender stereotypes, explains Yale sociologist Rene Almeling. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ian Crowther.

Today’s fertility industry is an economic force to be reckoned with. And not just because the egg agencies and sperm banks that receive sex cells pay a lot for these “donations.” This is a booming market, it’s true, and it’s one predicated on new technology. But this market has had the unintended consequence of perpetuating stereotypes about men’s and women’s economic roles, namely where different genders fit in the labor market. Rene Almeling, author of “Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm,” explains. Almeling is an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University.

Rene Almeling: Unimaginable until the 20th century, the clinical practice of transferring eggs and sperm from body to body is now a multi-million dollar industry. Egg agencies and sperm banks help create families, but they’re part of a medical market where the economic model is infused with gendered stereotypes.

Women providing eggs are usually paid around $5,000 to $10,000, while men earn around $100 per sperm donation. Yet, staffers in egg agencies and sperm banks consistently refer to this practice as “donation.” Depending on the sex of the donor, however, there are subtle differences in how donation is understood: egg donation is portrayed as an altruistic gift, while sperm donation is considered an easy job. Given that eggs and sperm are similar kinds of cells — each contains half the genetic material needed to create an embryo — what explains these different understandings?

It’s not just biology, and it’s not just technology. Four years of research into the medical market for eggs and sperm, including interviews with nearly 100 program staff and donors all over the country, reveal that traditional gendered stereotypes — of women as caregivers and men as breadwinners — influence how egg agencies and sperm banks do business.

The Business of Egg and Sperm Donation

Tens of thousands of people turn to fertility clinics each year, seeking donated eggs and sperm to conceive children. Egg agencies and sperm banks are similar in that they are in the business of recruiting “sellable” donors who will attract these recipient clients. It is the details of how they go about doing this that reveal the importance of gendered stereotypes in their day-to-day operations. For example, drawing on the stereotype of women as nurturing caregivers, egg agencies emphasize the plight of infertile couples in selecting women who want to “help” people by giving the “gift of life.”

In contrast, sperm banks rarely mention recipients, and they encourage men to think of donation like a “job.” One cheeky ad calls on them to “Get paid for what you’re already doing!” So the market for sex cells is structured both by traditional economic forces, such as the supply of and demand for donors, as well as by cultural expectations of women and men that are associated with reproduction and the family.

More evidence comes from the procedures used to screen prospective egg and sperm donors. Egg agencies and sperm banks alike require extensive medical evaluations, including a family health history that goes back three generations. But that is where the similarity ends. Some differences are driven by medical guidelines to optimize fertility. For example, egg donors must conform to rigorous height/weight ratios; sperm donors do not. And women over 30 are unlikely to be accepted as donors, while sperm donors can donate until they are 40.

Many of the screening standards, though, are driven by social concerns. Sperm banks usually require that men be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall; egg agencies do not set height minimums. Most sperm banks require that men be enrolled in college or have a college degree; egg agencies do not. Most egg agencies require psychological evaluations to assess how women feel about having children out in the world; sperm banks do not require that men discuss this possibility with a mental health professional.

Certainly, there are biological sex differences that are important to take into account when analyzing this market. As a result of these differences, women who provide eggs must self-inject fertility medications for several weeks before undergoing outpatient surgery. Sperm donors do not face any such physical risks, to say the least. But many people do not realize that sperm banks require men to donate on a regular basis, usually once a week, for at least a year. (It costs a lot of money to screen donors, so sperm banks have to make sure that the tiny fraction of men who are accepted as donors donate often enough during their year-long commitment to make the investment worth it.)

But neither biology nor technology explains why producing eggs for money is a gift and producing sperm for money is a job. Gendered stereotypes do.

Not only do they shape the organization of the market, framing paid donation as a gift or a job has profound implications for the donors themselves. Egg agencies are constantly thanking women for the wonderful difference they are making in the lives of recipients, and the egg donors I interviewed spoke with a great deal of pride about helping people have children. Some egg donors even described the money they received as a “gift” for the gift they had given.

Sperm banks treat men more like employees who are expected to clock in on a regular basis, and sperm donors respond by calling the money “income” or “wages.” Nobody is waxing poetic about the great significance of sperm donation, and men are more likely to receive funny tchotchkes like sperm pens and t-shirts than thank-you notes. More importantly, several of the sperm donors said they felt like “assets” or “resources” for the sperm bank, suggesting a sense of alienation from their own bodies.

I did not hear that kind of language from the egg donors, even though they are making much more money than the sperm donors. These kinds of differences demonstrate the powerful influence that fertility agencies have on donors’ perceptions. Calling a donation a gift or a job is not just a matter of rhetorical flourish; there are actual effects on women’s and men’s experiences of exchanging sex cells for money. Both egg and sperm donors help people achieve their dreams of having a family, but it is only women who walk away from this exchange with a sense of pride about the huge difference they are making in the lives of others.

Why Is This Market Controversial?

Generally speaking, markets for bodily goods and services provoke controversy. Think blood, organs, surrogate motherhood, prostitution. As in those cases, the market for eggs and sperm raises hackles because economic value is being assigned to the human body. We tend to think of commodifying the body as inherently degrading, but there has actually been relatively little direct research on the experiences of those who participate in such markets.

As a result, we need to learn more about how these markets work in practice. The comparison between egg and sperm donation makes clear that bodily commodification is not a generic or uniform process, and it can result in different kinds of outcomes for different kinds of people in different kinds of situations. It is not only the monetary exchange that matters, but how cultural assumptions about women and men interact to structure the organization and experience of particular markets. As the anthropologist Rayna Rapp has noted, it is often the newest technologies that tend to attract the oldest stereotypes. So in addition to all the advances in high-tech reproduction, we also need advances in how we think about women and men.


This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.