From pornography to reproductive medicine, society is repainting the portrait of modern masculinity, one sperm at a time.
“Don’t put your hands on your hips like that,” my mother once scolded me in the dining room. “But why?” a seven-year-old version of me pouted unwittingly. In the pause that followed, I continued to channel what must have been either a sorority girl or bikini model posing for a body shot, insofar as my mother’s response was a chillingly matter-of-fact, “because, you are not a girl.”
At that age, I had yet to develop the Gender Studies know-how to come back at her with a subversive rebuttal. “Macaroni,” “four square,” and “pine cones” were part of my vocabulary—“heteronormative” was not. So instead, my body and I complied with her demand, while silently agreeing that our palms-to-pelvis episode did not, in fact, make my penis magically disappear.
What one should take away from the previous exchange is that, on average, men and women comport their bodies differently: They walk, throw, gesture and stand differently. What’s more, these differences are not exclusive to adults. Using real-time ultrasound, observational systems and motion analysis tools, researchers have demonstrated sex-based differences in fetal, infant and, child activity levels, respectively. Such distinctions, whether due to biology, sociocultural presuppositions, or some combination thereof, are consequential in that they serve as physical and performative indices for what it means to be a man or a woman.
The idea of gendered performances is not limited to the realm of empirical research. Consider musician Willow Smith’s hit single, “Whip my Hair,” a vivacious hip-hop ode to the joys of lashing ones hair (back and forth). Media outlets like Ms. Magazine and NPR heralded Smith’s disruptive refrain as a source of empowerment for young women. In that Smith’s performance and its subsequent reviews were able to transform the physicality of hair—and an act of such spasticity—into something that women could easily relate to for its femininity, speaks volumes to the power that media and technology have in dictating gender trends.
While Willow and I have demonstrated the idea of performing gender at the level of limbs and ponytails, increasingly, these physical-cum-cultural distinctions are being made at the molecular level. In part, this phenomenon may derive from our compulsive need to anthropomorphize discoveries that we don’t fully understand. Take genes, for instance, the protein darlings of the 21st century. These nuggets of information are a shining example of how the microscopic can easily become an absolute metric for the subjective: The Gay Gene, The Selfish Gene, The Fat Gene, The Gene That Makes People Want to Sleep A Lot and Then Eat Taco Bell (Or maybe the last one is just me.)
Given our penchant for injecting culture into the most objective corners of human life, it is no surprise that sperm has become a symbolic battleground for warring conceptions of masculinity. No one understands this better than medical sociologist, Lisa Jean Moore, author of Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man’s Most Precious Fluid. In her study, Moore investigates how individuals, society and institutions contradict the fact that, “although sperm…come from men’s bodies, sperm are not men; they are not gendered…beings with emotions and personalities.” Specifically, Moore looks at sperm through the lens of the porn industry, the criminal justice system, reproductive medicine and educational materials.
Of the various systems that Moore considers, reproductive medicine and the porn industry are, at once, the most related and dissimilar. On one hand, both fields exist in a fluctuating state of controversy, and have flourished primarily because of advancements in information technology, digital imaging, and to some extent, a more liberal shift in how we view and share our bodies. On the other hand, both industries are worlds apart in that they serve vastly different purposes and provide vastly different services—think pleasure vs. procreation, flipsides of the same coin. It is this peculiar tension that makes porn and reproductive medicine such interesting candidates for understanding how we give cultural meaning to sperm.
In modern pornography, sperm is most recognized for its role in the “money shot.” Tracy Clark-Flory, a writer at Salon, identifies the “money shot” as the moment when a male performer ejaculates on his partner, which is often filmed “in luxuriating detail.” Some feminists, like Andrea Dworkin, have criticized the “money shot” as a symbolic act of patriarchal dominance, which “marks…what [the male performer] owns and how he owns it.” While the “money shot” can connote a power play between a man and woman, the act is slightly more complicated when two men are involved. How do men, the primary consumers of straight pornography, walk the line between heterosexual masculinity and homoeroticism, while watching a male performer ejaculate? Cindy Patton, a scholar on human sexuality, argues that male viewers bond with the male lead, interpreting his final release as an achievement, rather than as an act to be sexually desired.
Whether the “money shot” is an act of male bravado used to symbolically oppress women, or whether it is used simply because viewers find it to be more visually pleasing, does not change the fact that sperm is still the cellular poster child for venereal disease. Semen can carry HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and hepatitis C. Given this information, Moore notes that sperm can lose its power as marker of masculinity, becoming a liability for its owner as it simultaneously makes his disease status public and has the potential to infect others. Just this year, the Los Angeles City Council approved a city ordinance mandating that porn actors use condoms when at work, as a matter of public health—a measure that received backlash from porn industry representatives. While this policy does not directly impact the use of the “money shot,” it nonetheless imparts new meaning to sperm as a health hazard.
“Money shots” and public health legislation are a few examples out of many, which demonstrate the multifaceted interpretation of sperm in pornography: Sperm can be both a visual marker of masculinity or a substance to be reviled. Moore argues that different genres of porn—i.e. Porn where women dominate men—have the ability to turn gender conventions on their heads. Similarly, the ways in which individuals and institutions choose to create genres for sperm in the adult entertainment industry through policy, performance, and preference, have the ability to alter sperm-based notions of manhood.
The use of sperm in the biomedical industry, particularly in assisted reproductive technology (ART), also has the potential to reinforce or challenge our conceptions of what it means to be a man. For example, men who suffer from infertility have reported feelings of depression and inadequacy, even though they have little control over the range of genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to their condition. These attitudes reflect the belief that sperm act as a stand-in for the male and his self-worth: The better the sperm, the better the man. Moore writes, “an important part of the experience of male infertility is the projection of the sperm’s characteristics…onto the men who produce them.” In many cases, however, ARTs like intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), the technique where a single sperm is injected into an egg, enable men to overcome infertility problems like low sperm count, motility, and poor morphology. The question remains: Will the advent of such procedures reduce the emasculating stigma associated with infertility, or will it perpetuate the notion that good sperm equals a good, masculine man—i.e. One capable of producing a baby?
While ART allows many a fertility-challenged man to reclaim his ticket to fatherhood, it also has the power to totally remove fatherhood from the parenting equation. Today, single women and lesbian couples who want to conceive children can now look to sperm banks and ART to do exactly that. The rise of ART and the commodification of sperm, as what Moore describes as a “raw material…[that is] processed and distilled,” have opened up new and exciting possibilities for family arrangements and gender relations, many of which don’t even consider men. While The End of Men is still a debated phenomenon, what is clear is that gender conventions are changing, especially for mothers. The idea that mothers rely on men for their breadwinning and fathering skills is gradually eroding, as Hanna Rosin at The Atlantic writes, “the term mommy track is slowly morphing into the gender-neutral flex time, reflecting changes in the workforce.”
In essence, pornography and reproductive medicine are like twins that were separated at birth—where one decided to pursue an MD/PhD at Harvard Med, the other decided to get kinky on camera and make millions out of it. Despite their outward differences, both siblings are intrinsically identical in their treatment of sperm as an object of masculinity. Players in both fields have the ability to use sperm as either a means to sustain, undermine or redefine modern gender conventions.
Behind the “money shots” and test tube babies, however, it is important to remember is that sperm are just sperm. While our actions give these biological bullets a cultural narrative, at the end of the day, sperm is still just a sticky collection of weird-smelling cells. And even if, in some bizarre turn of events, scientists are able to show that sperm have personalities and emotions that make them “masculine,” why should that matter? Who are we to let our biological trappings dictate our beliefs on what is normal and what is not? For lack of a better metaphor, we are the artists, and sperm is the figurative paint with which we can imagine and inspire a more vibrant spectrum of manhood.
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—Photo Watson House/Flickr