Imagine a woman being raped or sexually assaulted whilst trying to conceive a baby. It’s an unpalatable thought; how many of us truly wish to confront that heinous scenario? As the Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, however, I hear women’s narratives of sexual abuse – abuse perpetrated by men cruising unregulated sperm donor websites and Facebook Groups. Women using this cyber route for conception are easy targets and easy victims for predatory men in this highly sexualised and exploitative environment, which is little more than a trade route. Research conducted by the SDA Foundation found a culture of gender-based violence and exploitation; it is a cyber-arena where 1 in 2 women will experience some form of violence or abuse.
The power imbalance – men hold the sperm and women need it – immediately creates the mechanisms for abusive patterns of behaviour. That power imbalance stretches into the very heart of our cash-starved NHS where profound inequity in accessing assisted conception treatments (such as donor insemination) pushes droves of women away from the safe, clinical environs of fertility clinics and right into the abusive hands of the unregulated cyber trade in male gametes.
Human male gametes are readily available through the interface of any laptop, tablet, or android phone.
Most women I speak with say that they log online in search of a sperm donor because they cannot afford the exorbitant costs associated with private fertility treatment. This inequality in accessing safe clinical assisted conception is creating an unimaginable demand for the underground trade in male gametes, readily available through the interface of any laptop, tablet or android phone. Here, virtual life online conflates with real life offline; repeat sexual offenders operate within a misogynistic culture where violence against women is normalised and condoned.
Within this cultural context, it should come as little surprise that it is commonplace for owners and administrators of sperm donor cyber-platforms to leap to the defence of abusive men and/or to engage in campaigns to silence women with the courage to speak up about their abusive experiences. Even when those owners and administrators take a stand back in the name of neutrality, they have already assigned their allegiance to the abuser. How? Because they fail to take a proactive and zero tolerance approach to abuse, whilst simultaneously, erecting insurmountable barriers for victims to report incidents. This is akin to holding one’s hands up and declaring, ‘hey that’s not my problem; I don’t want to know!’
The power imbalance – men hold the sperm and women need it – immediately creates the mechanisms for abusive patterns of behaviour.
As a trade route in cyberspace, there are vested interests in protecting the status quo – vested interests that are deemed worthy to fight for. In that regard, some owners and administrators want to protect their reputations and they want to keep the money coming in should they levy joining/usage fees. Then, we have those men who do not want to stop sexually abusing women in the guise of helping with conception. We also have men who want to continue profiteering financially by selling gametes...illegally. And what about those men and women whom passively close their eyes to abusive conduct? It begs the question, ‘just what kind of world do we live in when women trying to conceive are labelled ‘fair game’ for systematic violence and abuse?’
Unless women step forth and speak up to report abusive men – such men will simply move on to select their next victim.
As a woman and also as the Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, I advocate that it is a woman’s choice to report her abuser to the police - there are many factors to take into consideration. But therein lies the rub. Unless women step forth and speak up to report abusive men – such men will simply move on to select their next victim. If there is one thing we know about men who commit rape and sexual assault, it is that they have a strong tendency to be repeat offenders. Gennadij Raivich, former UCL Professor of Perinatal Neuroscience in Fetal and Maternal Medicine, assumed a false identity and became a prolific unregulated Internet sperm donor. He admitted he had fathered upwards of 58 children. In September 2014, Blackfriars Crown Court found him guilty of sexually assaulting one woman and the jury were unable to reach verdicts regarding sexual assaults committed upon two further women.
Such men do not necessarily sexually abuse every woman they meet or form an intimate relationship with – 15 women came to Raivich’s defence. Instead, sex offenders are selective; they carefully choose their victims through sperm donor cyber-platforms, where women flock with cascades of emotion, from glorious hope, to nerve tingling anticipation, to heart-breaking desperation – yet all with the same objective - to find a benevolent guy who wants to share the wonderful gift of life.
The accused is a ‘great guy, he’d never hurt anyone. The ‘victim is a troublemaker.
All too frequently in this cyber-world of trading sperm, men launch themselves to defend an online buddy. Supporters assert that the accused is a ‘great guy,’ or ‘he’d never hurt anyone.’ Supporters go on to argue, that the accused, ‘has donated tons of times and no one else has ever complained.’ Or the argument is raised that the ‘victim is a troublemaker,’ or that ‘she has a bone to pick,’ or ‘she’s crazy.’ Immediately, the accused man is exonerated and the female victim is vilified and accused of making a false allegation. Why? Because the unregulated online sperm donor community gives rise to a macho sexualised culture, which condones all forms of violence against women; it supports rape and sexual assault as legitimate ways to sire children. In essence, enthusiastic consent is irrelevant.
Let’s face it, which woman wants to explain to her child/ren that the man who ‘kindly’ helped mummy have a baby was later prosecuted for being a sex offender?
Mothers of children fathered by the accused may vocally step forth too. But their motivations for launching a defence whilst simultaneously striving to silence the voice of the abused are clearly more personal. Such women are fundamentally striving to protect and preserve the imagery and reputation of their child/ren’s ‘donor’ father. Let’s face it, which woman wants to explain to her child/ren that the man who ‘kindly’ helped mummy have a baby was investigated and/or prosecuted for being a sex offender? In one fell swoop, such bravery would denounce the ‘donor’ father as altruistic and replace this idealised sperm donor image with that of a serious criminal responsible for commissioning sexual offences upon vulnerable women.
Of course, that is just one factor leading women to protect the accused. Some women engage in mutually consensual sexual activity to conceive a child (remember not all women are victimised) and measure the behaviour of the accused against their own positive experiences – ‘he was gentle and attentive with me so he couldn’t hurt another woman.’ Moreover, do we as a society understand the legal definition of ‘enthusiastic consent?’ Absolutely not! Even women who have experienced non-consensual sexual activity do not always define it as abuse and thus a criminal offence.
Do we as a society understand the definition of ‘enthusiastic consent?’
Accepting that one has been sexually assaulted or raped when trying to conceive opens up an unpleasant can of worms. It means that the sperm ‘donor,’ perhaps once trusted, now needs to be re-framed as a sex offender. That can be a giant psychological leap. The prospect of sharing the trauma or reporting the incident(s) to the police also needs to be confronted. This all occurs in circumstances few understand – the unregulated ‘anything goes’ world of online sperm donation. Let us not forget the issue of fear and retribution, which at its most basic level can lead women to remain silent, or even prompt some to give the appearance of outwardly supporting the accused. In time, however, it is hoped that more women will come forth and speak up, for such courage and bravery are decisive steps towards protecting other women (and potentially children too). But women cannot do this alone. Why are the owners and administrators of sperm donor websites and Facebook Groups not doing more?
As the cyber trade in sperm is woefully incapable of self-regulation, it begs the questions whether it is time for State intervention.
For information or support: www.sda.foundation.org.uk