It wasn’t a complex issue for me then. Wednesday mornings, at 10am, I went down to the local hospital, had a wank into a little plastic jar – and I earned five quid. As a student in 1982 that was good money. The rest of my mates were slaving away in their local pub, earning peanuts.
I acquired a certain notoriety amongst my peers for the manner in which I topped up my grant (in the days when the government got the beers in) and the effortlessness of my earning power made me the envy of all. My male friends didn’t have the bottle to follow me and the girls lacked the equipment. It was a laugh and a nice little earner and nothing more.
Debate would rage as to the sheer volume of my progeny walking the streets of Sheffield. And friends would claim to have sighted some toddler with a passing resemblance to me being pushed down Division Street. We were young and naïve, and the implications of bearing children were a world away.
Of course, someone would always get round to saying – what if these many offspring I’d fathered some day turned up at my door – how would I feel then? At 22 and later, when I donated again in my early thirties, I’d patiently explain the anonymous nature of the donations and how you were treated like a Platinum donor – as if you were doing something gracious and wonderful for an unfortunate sector of society and how – most importantly your identity was kept secret forever.
And this was the key – anonymity. The concept of getting five quid (or fifteen when I later donated in London) and then landing yourself with a child, might well have broken my concentration as I sat in that little room in the Jessops Hospital trying to fill up my jar.
It gives me pause for thought now – and I’m ‘safe’ – if that’s the word, from being confronted with the children who were born using my sperm – as the newly introduced government legislation will not be applied retrospectively. But will today’s medical students (the majority of donors) feel quite so carefree when contemplating the easy buck – when any resulting children will have the right to come and find them on their eighteenth birthday? I guess fifteen quid for a quick ‘tug of the bishop’ won’t be looking as attractive as it did last week.
The first time I donated sperm I was an impecunious politics student with a fear of mathematics – hence my reluctance to work in a bar. However, for what I lacked in mental arithmetic I more than made up for with bravado. The apocryphal student tale of easy money at the sperm bank provided an opportunity to either debunk a myth or fill my boots. I was there in no time.
A gentle enquiry at the front desk of the local women’s hospital, an imposing Victorian building, took me into a world of ordered anonymity that was to become positively Kafka-esque. It was the start of a strange detached process of going once a week to a little room at the top of this old hospital – where I quietly left my deposit and departed, speaking to no one.
My only contact with the staff of the Endocrine (the name of the hospital department) was this first meeting. I was treated like an honoured philanthropist, about to bestow my person wealth on the community. The doctor thanked me many times as I filled in forms concerning my medical history, took a blood test and then I was lead for the first time to the little room that would become my point of precipitation for the next year.
After I’d delivered my test amount of sperm, the doctor told me that if my tests were good – and I had a good sperm count, there would be no need for us to meet again. I’d be informed of the results by post and at the same time would be told the designated half hour I would have, every week, to make my contribution. I’d come to the same room, at the appointed time – and an empty jar would be there waiting for me. I was to make my deposit (with the aid of the porn mags in the drawer), put the lid back on the jar, write my name on the jar – and leave the room as I’d found it. My cheques would come in the post (ho, ho).
I came to enjoy my Wednesday mornings. There was something secretly pleasureable about going to a pre-arranged wank. I’d stroll into the hospital, take the stairs up to the room, making sure I never arrived early – so I didn’t bump into the guy before me – let myself into the little room and peruse the latest mags that had been provided by the hospital.
I always wondered who’s job it was to buy them. I couldn’t imagine the besuited, Jean Brody-ish doctor rifling through the top-shelf, in order to procure material for her young philanthropists. When I donated in London, during a period of unemployment, an altogether different and more sophisticated system was used to provide adequate stimulation for the donors. (And no, it wasn’t the nurse with the rubber gloves!)
At this central London hospital there were a great many ‘regulars’ who each had accumulated their own personal files of porn. On my first visit, the lab technician showed me the cupboard full of blue folders and invited me to take my pick. There was a fine and varied selection catering for all tastes. It ranged from – at one end of the spectrum – the soft porn of Health and Efficiency to Playboy and Penthouse, then taking the rough road to Hustler and Men Only, a little detour to Big & Bouncy, the vaguely disturbing cul de sac of Preggo (my first exposure to the ‘joy’ found in lactating women) – and then off into the darker realms of grannies, golden showers, defecation, human bondage and animals.
Should you be interested – my taste nestled somewhere between Playboy and Penthouse and I very quickly ascertained which folders were for me. On one occasion I got the wrong one and had to return to the cupboard, feeling rather queasy at the thought of what turns people on.
While the porn selection at the Middlesex Hospital was vastly superior to the Jessop – the environment provided for making the deposit was altogether inferior. The quiet solitude of the little room at the Jessop was in sharp contrast to the gents toilet at the Middlesex. Gone was that special feeling of doing the great philanthropic deed – this was utilitarian donation – at best.
The only two times in Sheffield I’d cause to really ponder the process was once when the previous donor’s deposit hadn’t been collected and a completely full jar of jism was left in the room. And these weren’t small jars. I can remember staring at what looked to me like the liquid excitement of a bull elephant and contemplated the meagreness of my own usual 10cc offering. Another time, I’d had sex that very same morning with my girlfriend (a cardinal sin in the world of sperm donation – you’re not supposed to have emissions for three days prior! Yeah, right) and I was still spanking the monkey, in a froth of desperation, as the last minute of my half hour elapsed.
In Sheffield every effort was made to keep you and the process quiet and clandestine. This was in stark contrast to London where the technician in charge – a young woman – seemed to delight in treating us like dairy cows. There were two stalls in the gents and while she was supposed to only allow one donor in the toilets at a time, on one occasion I turned up and there was already some guy rustling his mags in trap one – so I turned on my heels and waited in the corridor for him to finish. And on another occasion I was in full flow when a guy came in to the next cubicle, opened his folder and went for it. It put me off completely. I sat with my hands over my ears and waited for him to finish.
The levity surrounding the donation of sperm to couples, where the man is infertile or has a low count – is legion. I’ve dined out on it a few times over the years, I can tell you. Inevitably people are curious about the whole process. Yet it wasn’t until I saw a documentary by the well known director Ann Hawker, and this feels like a terrible confession, that I first began thinking of the process from the point of view of the children that are produced from sperm donation.
In her programme, which featured men and women who’d been fathered by the likes of me, the heart wrenching conclusion was that it left them feeling a mixture of anger, isolation, and betrayal. And with an overriding sense of not belonging.
As one of the interviewees points out – it’s one thing to be an adopted child, who may well have been a product of some night of passion amongst teenagers, and who at least has the chance to trace their real parents – and it’s quite another to know your father was paid small change to wank into a plastic jar and that there is no way you will ever be able to know him.
Ann Hawker’s programme went on to highlight the dubious practises of some doctors in the fifties and sixties who sold their own sperm to tens of women in their community – and with impunity fathered many children. This, and the very casual nature of the donation process, in particular, at the Middlesex hospital in London – illustrated to me in the starkest of fashions, the insensitivity and lack of forethought I’d always given to sperm donation.
Historically, and how I too had come to view the process, sperm donation for couples where the man is infertile or has a low count – was viewed as a way of fulfilling the dreams of previously childless couples. It was seen as superior to adoption because at least one parent was real. It’s now patently obvious to me that this is wrong. It’s a wholly inferior situation for the child.
For example, a friend of mine who was adopted, has recently found his real mother and has fulfilled a myriad of aching desires that he’s been plagued with all his life. His father is no longer around but at least his mother can and has told him all about him and he’s seen photographs. If you were born of my issue – either in Sheffield or in London – you will never know me, as I am protected from you forever, by the law.
There are no easy answers to this issue. We all have kids to satisfy our own desires – it’s a universal truth – so why should others be stopped from having them. But just maybe this new law is a good thing – if it makes naïve young men, such as myself, realise sperm donation is a little more complex than jacking off in a plastic jar for some beer money.