College students comprise 90 percent of American sperm donors. Why? They’re smart, cute and virile — everything a would-be mom wants.
Jeff Salkin was struggling to pay his bills when he saw an ad that seemed too good to be true: a clinic would pay him to masturbate.
“I was having a hard time coming up with enough money for food and rent. I found out selling sperm is pretty easy, and at 40 bucks a whack, it’s pretty lucrative too,” said the University of Oregon senior, whose name was changed to protect his privacy.
Salkin is one of thousands of college students nationwide who cover their expenses by selling DNA. Commercial sperm banks, which exploded in the early 1970s and now number more than 150, have clustered around universities where the “natural resources” are plentiful: intelligent people who need quick cash and have sperm to spare. By 1993, frozen sperm was a $164 million a year industry, and companies like California Cryobank were aggressively recruiting on the campuses of brand-name schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.
“At least 90 percent of our donors are college students,” said Melonee Evans, California Cryobank’s client relations manager. “Students are more eager to donate because they need the money and have more flexible schedules.”
Those who can make the time and the maximum donation, which usually means siring up to 10 children can net upward of $6,000 in one academic year.
“Most students do it because they really need the money,” said Geo Low, an employee at Berkeley, Calif.’s Reproductive Technologies, Inc. “And some think their genes are cool and want to spread them around.” According to Low about 15 students make “deposits” to her bank on an average day.
Students at top schools say they can hardly walk across campus without finding ads soliciting donations from the young, brainy and virile.
“Everywhere you look there’s an ad for sperm donors,” Harvard sophomore Owen Breck said. “Our sperm has good SAT scores.”
Students at prestigious colleges are highly coveted sperm bank donors because they please picky customers. California Cryobank only accepts donors who attend or have graduated from a “major four-year university.” Donors must also be tall, trim, heterosexual, between 19 and 34 years old, and able to provide flawless medical and genetic histories of their families. The five percent of applicants who make the cut are well rewarded: The SpermBrokerage, another major sperm bank chain, pays donors $100 per visit, plus a $1,000 bonus for every six months they stick with the program.
Just six years ago, the average payment for a single sperm donation was $30. But as baby boomers reach middle age and decide to start families, and as single career women decide they want children but not husbands, the demand for top-quality sperm has far outpaced the supply. In 1997 about 250,000 babies were conceived from anonymous sperm donations, even though a single sperm sample (about 10 samples can be divided from one donation) sells for $200.
“It’s a very lucrative industry,” Evans said.
One University of Wisconsin junior who studies computer science and is an All-American athlete says his donations to SpermBrokerage keep him enrolled in school.
“My friends suggested it as a joke but I was considering it even before they said anything,” the donor said. “Since the NCAA doesn’t allow me to hold a job during the school year, this was one of the few ways I could actually make money to support myself while school’s in session.”
Since many college men are uncomfortable when they first begin making sperm donations, sperm bank staff members (usually female) work to create calming and sexy environments featuring private rooms, dim lighting, plush chairs, porn magazines and X-rated videos.
“To [the donors] the idea of masturbating for money is a little weird at first,” Low said. “To masturbate in a strange place, pornography is kind of necessary.”
This is especially true after the grueling tests donors must constantly undergo. In the eight weeks before a California Cryobank donor can begin making deposits, he must have a full blood workup and must complete genetic counseling and mounds of paperwork. “Even the physical is intense we check every orifice,” Evans said proudly.
Sperm bank representatives say they must be so selective because customers are so demanding. “Everyone wants something different, but most want a donor who is over six feet, has blond hair and blue eyes, and is majoring in the sciences,” Evans said.
Some consider the idea of making designer babies made from Ivy League sperm elitist. Shortly after California Cyrobank opened its Cambridge office, The New Republic called the chain “one of the more blatantly elitist sperm buyers” in the country.
“Smarts and looks are just very important to [clients],” said Low, who explained that Reproductive Technologies moved from Oakland, Calif. to nearby Berkeley to be closer to that nationally-renowned university’s smart set.
But while some banks like the Repository of Germinal Choice in Escondido, Calif., which for a time accepted only sperm from Nobel Prize winners exclude all but the “best” sperm, others, like CryoGam Colorado, Inc., consider such careful selection ethically questionable. “We’re not involved in eugenics or anything like that,” said CryoGam director Betsy Cairo.
While ethical debates rage, increasing numbers of students turn to sperm banks for extra cash even after they finish school (though the average age of a donor remains about 21).
“I started after I graduated I needed to pay off my student loans and it seemed like a good way to supplement my income,” said a recent Northwestern M.B.A. grad. “The money actually helped me start my own business.”
For now, Salkin has found another source of income, but he says he’d go back to being a donor if money gets tight. “When someone offers you $40 for a little sperm, it’s hard to turn down a job offer like that.”
* Discussion: Would You Donate Sperm?
Image courtesy Marbella