Undercover Hunt In Italy's Black Market For Sperm Donors

Medically assisted procreation is restricted by law in Italy to heterosexual couples. A La Stampa reporter posed as a woman seeking to get pregnant and found dozens of willing men online.

'In Italy only heterosexual couples have access to sperm donors through official channels'
"In Italy only heterosexual couples have access to sperm donors through official channels"
Flavia Amabile

In Italy, medically assisted procreation is restricted to heterosexual couples, but websites for would-be mothers have proliferated. Our journalist posed as a woman seeking to get pregnant and found dozens of willing men online.

ROME — Elisa is three years old. In a few months her little brother will be born, and her mother is preparing the girl for the change. She tells her daughter how wonderful it will be to play together, and to do all the things families do when a little boy finally arrives.

Elisa doesn't know it, but technically she already has three other biological siblings: same father, different mothers. She'll get to know them one day, too, but her mother hasn't talked to her about it yet.

"I'll do it when she starts going to school, because some of those children could be in the same class, or the same school," says the mother.

Outside the bounds of the law

Elise is the daughter of a sperm donor, one who presented himself like this: "I am tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a lithe and toned physique. I have three beautiful children, we are all healthy. I would like to offer to others the joy and happiness that I have. I ask nothing more." Signed, Marcus.

And it's true: Marcus asked nothing of Elisa's mother. He would have completely disappeared from her life had she not re-contacted him asking him to father a second child with her wife, Elisa's second mother.

Marcus accepted. He is a private sperm donor, the last resort — and far outside the bounds of the law — for those who do not qualify to access officially sanctioned medically-assisted fertilization techniques in Italy.

No sperm bank, no trip abroad, no syringe full of hormones. Everything is do-it-yourself. And the consequences are a sharp deviation from the straight line one imagines in normal social interactions: not at all predictable, sometimes barely imaginable.

No one knows how many non-official sperm donors there are in Italy. What is known, however, is that they are more and more in demand. There are 5 million infertile men in Italy, and the number of gametes is in free-fall. The number of single adults, conversely, has risen: There are 1.8 million more than a decade ago, a 25% increase.

In Italy only heterosexual couples have access to sperm donors through official channels, and only heterosexual couples with several thousand euros to spare can afford a medical technique that doesn't always succeed on the first try. It's a considerable investment of both time and money, in other words.

Be they single or in a relationship — with another woman or an infertile man — the women seeking to have a child who have neither the funds for a clinic abroad nor the time left on their biological clock to go through such a process seek refuge in the simplest search possible: that of the hidden world of sperm donors.

To enter this world there are two possibilities: word of mouth, or websites. In the first instance, most of the difficulties are already surmounted. A friend has already successfully had a child by the donor in question, with the all-important guarantees of absence of hereditary illnesses and agreements on a relationship (or lack of relationship) between donor and child. In the second instance, one has to get comfortable, turn on the computer, register on a specialized site, pay a minimum of 29 euros for one month of access, and send a message out more or less in the dark.

This is what I try to do one evening in late September. Creating a profile takes just a few minutes. I enter my information and find myself face-to-face with a catalog of thousands of sperm donors from all over the world. A search engine lets me filter the results based on dozens of parameters: age, height, hair and eye color, religion, zodiac sign, nationality, place of residence and many more. I prefer not to pick. I type out a very generic message and send it off to the entire massive audience.

Wanted: AAA-Dad

"I'm seeking a donor. I'm single, live in Rome, 37 years old." In a few days I receive more than 80 profiles — men who are all ready to donate. I count some 30 people online at any hour ready to chat over the instant messaging service. This is how contact is initiated. You get to know one another, exchange primary information. If you decide to move forward, all it takes is giving them your phone number and continuing the conversation on WhatsApp, or better yet, the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

The day after sending out my message, I receive a dozen or so responses. This is where the real selection process begins for the future father of my (hypothetical) child. The first message is from a certain Ale346, athletic build. He says he's 35, unmarried with a stable income, and only interested in being a donor — no co-parenting.

For a woman on the hunt there are still two key pieces of information missing: a medical certificate proving he is free of illnesses such as HIV, and photos to get an idea of the genes he would pass on to a future son or daughter. From the words exchanged and the tones of the responses comes an understanding of the character behind what is so far only a username.

Ale346 is pragmatic. He quickly offers up his perfect statistics, his overabundant fertility. "I have a sperm count of 109 million per milliliter," he explains. "The majority of men have between 20 and 40 million. I can easily supply thousands of spermatozoids in two days. From the moment I discovered this, I decided to donate. It would feel selfish not to, knowing that so many women are specifically seeking an insemination to be happy. And how are you with your hormones? Have you also checked your vitamins and amino acids?"

Mrb105 strikes a more personal note. He tells me the story of his relationship with a girlfriend that ended before having the time to have kids. It left him with an inner feeling of incompleteness, which he seeks to now fill by becoming a donor. While it's not the same thing as raising a child, he likes the idea that a part of him will live on after he's gone.

What will become of this unsatisfied desire to have children?

This feeling of an inner void is one many find themselves faced with in life, but in the case of sperm donors the effects can be hard to predict. With the passing of years, what will become of this unsatisfied desire to have children? Will these men eventually try and find their offspring? And the women who don't want to reckon with this part of their past, what tools do they have to prevent this from happening?

Some men agree to sign some sort of waiver, an agreement in which they swear they'll disappear. In other cases meetings at regular intervals are agreed upon, along with joint parental decision making. It can paint a pretty picture, but it's also rich material for lawyers to exploit in cases of disagreements or problems. And there is no shortage of problems that can arise as a child grows up. Not to mention the difficulty of a woman seeking legal recognition as the second, non-biological mother of a child in the case of lesbian couples.

Many donor messages arrive from Rome, but there are also many from much farther away. Jorge writes from Spain. The distance is not a problem, he assures: "An airline ticket cost 60 euros, it's not a hindrance to me. Do you prefer a syringe or the natural method?"

And the other big dilemma comes at this point in the negotiations. The rate of success using traditional sexual relations is double that of an insemination kit. But not everyone wants physical contact.

Jorge is categorical. "With me it's artificial insemination only. No contact." He doesn't want money, and nobody else asks for it either. It's something else that all these men are looking for.

Only Mrb105 wants to admit it. "I have husbands begging me to give their wife a child to save their marriage, single women who ask me to give meaning to their lives then disappear. I myself realize that I am doing this in search of a feeling that I lost when my ex left me. We are struggling with an enormous human drama that nobody wants to see."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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