Rene Almeling – Sex Cells – The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm

Rene Ameling (1977, assistant Professor of Sociology at Yale University) attempted to sort through the questions raised by bodily commodification. Economics (my own University background), healthcare and psychology are combined in her publication Sex Cells – The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, based on her own research on egg donations and sperm donors, nowadays a multi-billion market in the US alone. Though explicitly a US-based research, Ameling suggests that the outcomes may differ among cultures around the earth. The practice was unimaginable until the 20th century. Hundreds of fertility clinics in the US are dependent on a constant supply of sex cells for clients who do not have or cannot use their own sperm and eggs. Research was done on this market dynamics, the very nature of it: a gift / donation or a simple economic transaction. Secondly the perception of men and women towards their ‘service’ is revealed. What drives them?  Is it for the money? What are gender differences? What about separating private life and personal relationships (marriage, fiancee, sexual intercourse) from ‘a little vacation’ or periodic masturbation on demand? The third part of the book is concentrated on the eventual offspring. Do donors consider themselves parents? What if the offspring become 18 and are looking for their genetic ancestor and knock on your door? The answers to these questions are not reduced to biology or technology. Ameling brings together sociological theories of the market with gendered theories of the body to create a framework for analyzing markets for bodily goods, both in terms of how such markets are organized and in how they are experienced. Eggs and sperm are parallel bodily goods, but appear to be marketed differently from other bodily goods like blood and organs. Egg agencies, sperm banks were visited, staff and donors interviewed.

Commodification of the body is an interactive social process. One of the significant findings from this study: the way in which payment happens is surprisingly important in shaping eggs and sperm donors’ experiences of being paid for bodily goods. Gendered norms influence the market for sex cells, but racial and class-based inequalities, among others, are likely to be as powerful in shaping processes of bodily commodification. Sex does indeed sell in the medical market for eggs and sperm. The characteristics of the people and the parts, the flows of supply and demand, and the historical and cultural context all come together to produce variation in both the structure and experience of the market.

You can read the introduction for free as PDF and preview this book’s content online, check this book’s Facebook page or watch an interview with Rene Ameling.