More and More Would-Be Mothers are Opting for Self-Insemination

Hilary wanted a baby, but she didn’t have a man. Mr Right was nowhere to be seen, she was 34 and didn’t want to wait. Mr Not-So-Bad was not good enough and a casual fling for the sake of a baby was out of the question. Then she discovered that she didn’t really need a man at all: she needed only his sperm, and a spoon. Within the year she had her baby.

Women have been doing it themselves for years. Originally an American idea, Self-Insemination by Donor Sperm or ‘turkey-basting’ (turkey basters are popular implements for SI in the United States; spoons and syringes are preferred in Britain, turkey-basters not being that common), was first used here by gay women in the Seventies.

Now it is catching on among growing numbers of family-minded single women gay and straight in their thirties and forties who are choosing to have the baby now and the father later. SI is cheaper and easier than artificial insemination in fertility clinics, the alternative non-sexual way of making babies. These clinics do treat single women, but with growing reluctance, since 1991’s Virgin Birth controversy.

Linda knew that she did not want to go to a clinic. The cost aside, she said: ‘I never wanted an anonymous donor. I didn’t want him to be a father, but I wanted to know who he was.’ Instead she bought some sterile needleless syringes from a chemist for 9p each.

The cost of a clinic would have been about pounds 150 for an initial consultation and pounds 100 a month after that. Finding the right donor was more problematic. ‘It is a huge favor not only are you asking them to be the biological father, albeit absent, but they have to make a commitment to have an Aids test, and to drop everything once a month, for every month until it works.’ Linda was lucky.

Her friend, a photographer, agreed. ‘When the time was right I cooked a special supper and invited him and some other friends around. The others handed me some wine; he handed me some sperm in a film canister. Nothing was said. Mid-course I went upstairs and did it. It was all a bit haphazard. I sat through pudding with my legs over the back of a sofa.’ Another film canister was delivered the next evening.

Linda did not conceive that month, but she did the next. ‘I did it four times in all and got pregnant on the third try.’ Her son, Michael, is now nine months old.

We are used to procreation without sex. Infertility was the motivator and, since Louise Brown became the world’s first test-tube baby in 1978, fertility clinics and science have stepped in when nature fails. Babies can now be made in test-tubes (IVF), infertile eggs can be replaced with fertile ones (egg transfer), infertile sperm with fertile (AID) and hostile wombs can supplemented by friendly ones (host womb).

Along the way sex became redundant and artificial insemination originally an infertility treatment became the way fertile women, who didn’t want intercourse, could have a baby.

But if inseminating was no longer tied up with infertility, it did imply hi-tech procedure. Not so. What is startling about SI is its simplicity. ‘I thought that you had to go to a clinic,’ said Hilary, ‘that inseminating was complicated and that only doctors could do it.’

Babies can be made without the penetrative help of a man or the costly help of science. ‘There really is nothing to it,’ said Lisa Saffron, author of Getting Pregnant Our Own Way, a guide to self-insemination.

‘There is no technology, no technique, you can even use your hands.’ That a spoon can do almost the same work as a man’s most valued member could come as a blow to some, but as Tara Kaufman, former spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: ‘If more women were aware of SI, more would be doing it.’

The method might be easy, but the organization isn’t. DIY babies are never accidents. The mechanics of conception are studiously studied and fertilization is planned in minutest detail.

Linda gave up smoking, drew up charts and took her temperature to establish her fertile period and bought predictor kits to confirm it. Finding a donor, known or anonymous, can be difficult there is a big difference for some men between recreational and procreating sperm. And organizing the handover can be complicated.

Jill, who used an anonymous donor and an intermediary, said: ‘We drove to the donor’s house and found the jar sitting on a stool a foot away from a blazing fire. It had been there for ages. Needless to say the sperm was cooked and I couldn’t use it.’ The second time her new donor lived miles away and she had to drive at 80mph to get back before the sperm expired.

Healthy semen is a precious commodity for women bent on SI. They tend to know everything there is to know about its upkeep: that it’s not that robust and has to be used within two hours of ejaculation; that the best time to use it is once it’s passed through the clotting stage (immediately after ejaculation) and gone into the slippery and liquid phase (about 10 minutes later); that it should never be frozen in the deep-freeze or overheated, as both extremes kill it; and that it should be kept at body temperature, preferably in a pocket or under the arm.

Whole sections of Getting Pregnant Our Own Way are devoted to sperm, and, like any ‘how-to’ manual, it offers handy hints like mixing it with a saline solution to extend its shelf-life.

The book also considers the legal, health and ethical implications of DIY babies. The risk of Aids and infection is very real.

Clinics screen their donors for disease and the semen they offer is guaranteed germ-free. Conception can take months and clinics offer counselling and have built-in support to help women through what can be a very stressful time. Women who do it themselves are more isolated and have to take more on trust.

Moreover, a man who donates sperm through clinics is not legally, financially or in any way a father. Those who donate informally are.

The guidelines of the newly established Child Support Agency explicitly state that men who donate sperm for Self Insemination away from established clinics are responsible as fathers and therefore could be liable for maintenance. Women on income support who refuse to name the father, or in the case of anonymous donations, genuinely don’t know, could face close interrogation by the agency and reductions in benefit.

Likewise, there is always the possibility that a father might demand custody. So inseminating at home and knowing the father might be cozier than conceiving with the help of strangers in a clinic, but legally it can be a minefield.

Problems then, lie not so much with the technique but with what happens after. Although Joan Raphael-Leff, a psychoanalyst and author of Psychological Processes of Preparation for Good Parenting says, ‘sexual activity in itself does not constitute preparation for good parenting,’ conception, whether by spoon or sex, is just the beginning.

Sex is All in The Brain

In politically correct circles, to assert that men and women are different borders on boorishness. If uttered by a man, such claims are evidence of naivety or a desire to shock, while from a woman they are close to a betrayal.

For the past twenty years, feminists have conspired with well-meaning male liberals to assert that all gender differences are the result of early conditioning. They have found it hard, admittedly, to explain why men are on average taller than women, since even the most intensive conditioning appears unable to add a cubit to our stature, but in terms of intellectual ability the assumption is that boys and girls begin with the same empty screen, on to which their parents and society at large project very different expectations.

Hampstead parents, many of whom actually believed this, have obediently declined to furnish their sons with guns, or their daughters with dolls. Blue and pink have been eschewed in favor of less obviously sexist colors. Around the growing boy the prison walls of the new man have begun to close almost from the moment of birth, while girls have felt failures if they want to become nurses rather than electricians.

Such is the frailty of fashion that this period of well-meaning behaviorism has actually coincided with growing evidence that men and women are very different indeed, and that these differences have little to do with their upbringing but lots to do with the chemical factors that distinguish them.

A growing body of scientific evidence now indicates that the brains of men and women are differently wired from very early in life as a result of sex hormones, and that this really explains the different abilities and skills of the two genders.

The recognition of this truth has come as a relief to many researchers who set out with other ideas. For example, Camilla Benbow of Iowa State University, who has demonstrated that high mathematical ability tends to be a male preserve, has said: “After 15 years of looking for an environmental explanation and getting zero results, I gave up”. She now accepts that these differences are biological in origin.

An excellent summary of the present state of knowledge is provided by Doreen Kimura, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, in the current issue of Scientific American. (A remarkable proportion of those working in the field of sexual differences are women, interestingly enough.) In Professor Kimura’s laboratory it has been shown that boys as young as three are better at target-directed motor skills in ordinary language, hitting or catching balls than girls of the same age. Nor is this a consequence of greater practice: boys simply appear better equipped by nature to become cricketers or baseball players.

By the same token, girls have greater verbal fluency, learn languages more easily, are better at remembering landmarks from a route and carry out some manual tasks more skillfully. While men will learn the route for a journey by rote “third left, second right, straight on at the roundabout” women will memorize it by landmarks, recalling that the right turn is close to Woolworths. The male approach makes men better at reading maps, according to Thomas Bever of the University of Rochester.

By running rats through mazes, Christina Williams of Barnard College has shown that these gender-related behaviors can be reversed. Newborn male rats deprived of the male sex hormone testosterone navigate like females, while masculinized females get around like males. The Darwinian explanation for this is that male mammals with several mates must navigate skillfully to find them all, a hypothesis given a useful head of steam by the finding that meadow voles, which are polygynous, show gender differences in navigation while the monogamous prairie vole does not.

Professor Kimura is in no doubt that the effects of early exposure to sex hormones are considerable, and lifelong. Girls with a genetic defect that exposes them to high levels of masculinizing hormones in the womb grow into women with spatial skills that are more typical of men.

Exactly how these differences arise is not yet clear, but the accumulating evidence is strong. The brains of girls and boys are made in a distinctive way that may determine how well they perform in certain specialized tasks.

This may mean that we may never see equal numbers of men and women in physics and engineering, or a woman chess master able to beat the best men. In other fields Professor Kimura suggests medicine, where perceptual skills are important women may in due course constitute a majority.

The fact that sex differences are real does not, of course, justify discrimination. In both sexes the range of ability is wide, with large areas of overlap; and most professions require a blend of skills which can be provided in more than one way. Nor do the inborn differences mean that environment is irrelevant.

But it is no longer good enough to pretend that there are no differences beyond those imposed by convention and social behavior, or that to look for such inborn differences is in some way an improper activity.

Sex Surveys Loom Larger

It’s been a strange week Chez Self. The looming deadline for this piece on the new sexuality has haunted me like the footsteps of some potential assassin that stomps down the dank, dark passages of my mind. For hours at a time I have had to repair to my specially constructed orgone box in order to enhance my supplies of orgone energy. The orgone box – as you no doubt recall – was an idea of the great sexological psychologist, Wilhelm Reich. Reich believed that the orgasm was the greatest weapon against collective blights on humankind: war, cancer, unwanted body hair and so on.

The orgone box – or ‘accumulator’ – is constructed out of alternate layers of metal and wood. I got mine at the Conran Shop – although the ones from Ikea have a certain jejeune appeal.

You simply crawl inside the thing and wait for the beneficial waves of ecstasis to well up from inside. This takes the form of a tingling sensation that starts at the base of the spine then speeds up, building up to a whining near-orgasmic crescendo.

This, for some perverse reason, reminds me of nothing so much as the decrepit starting motor on my decrepit Citron GSA. And like the car, which whines and whines on the point of firing – but never roars into abandoned revving – so the orgone box will not work for me.

But then nothing else can either. In the 1980s when the subject of priapism was touched on even tangenitally (just a pinkie lightly caressing the glans of the issue – so to speak), I would say: ‘Of course, size does matter – and I don’t have it. Even fully erect my penis is little more than three-quarters-of-an-inch long. I haven’t the capability to perform penetrative sex.’

As if to punish me for this temptation of the turgid rod of fate, the 1990s has, for me, been inaugurated with the ‘new impotence’. As all around me I see SEX writ larger and larger, so I have become writ smaller and smaller. Ironically, this makes me the best possible person to survey the fantastical topography of the contemporary sexual landscape. From the droop-point of the flopper-on, I can apprehend the truth about our erotic mores, dissolve the false consciousness that afflicts all you coming men and coming women.

This obsession with the raw quantification of the sexual for a start. If I had an erection for every questionnaire I’ve seen in the print media in the past year, I would be the Tantric Grand Master of sexual North London. ‘Is Your Sex Life Bouncy Enough?’; ‘How to Tell if your Man is a Golden Syrup Fetishist’; ‘The Results of our Readership Survey of the Electrolux 3000 Vacuum Cleaner’, and so on. Now, no cranny or crevice of the body sexual is any longer rank or tight enough to remain unsurveyed.

The authors of the recent Wellcome Trust survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, may have indulged themselves in the belief that theirs was a resolutely unprurient exercise, but I have severe doubts. For someone as attuned as I to the bat’s squeak of the erotic imagination, the very thought of 19,000 people aged 15 to 69 (69! I ask you), being asked about their sexual practices was enough to put me in an impressive lather.

I found all the findings of the survey accorded with what I would have said intuitively: that women remain more committed to serial monogamy than men; that separated, divorced and widowed people are far more likely to have multiple partners than the resolutely single; that the largest concentrations of gay people are in urban centers; and that men who have been through a bisexual phase in their late teens, are in fact less likely to become homosexual and so on, and so forth.

But then, had the survey proposed that what we all secretly desired was congress with a sea lion, some cavity wall insulation and Edwina Currie, I would have found that just as believable. Because I really want to hang on to my ignorance about other people’s sex lives. I don’t wish to be disabused. The kind of voyeurism that grabs me is etiolated in the extreme. I don’t want to see people doing it, hear them, or – heaven forbid! – participate. I simply want to know that it’s going on.

I’ve even invented a special term to describe this syndrome. I call it ‘psycho-empathetic voyeurism’, or ‘PEV’ for short. The seasoned PEVist can simply sit at home, getting his rocks off on all the sexual congress vibes humming in the ether. Imagine what I make of such survey findings as: smokers and drinkers are far more likely to have had sex in the last week (before completing said survey), than their more abstemious brethren and sistren? What a torment. I can tipple and puff with the best of them, but it’s not doing anything for my orgone power.

The reason, I discovered, perusing the survey results further, is that while both smokers and drinkers have sex more, drinkers are less likely to use a condom than non-drinkers; whereas smokers are more likely to use a condom than non-smokers. You get the picture: a drink in one hand, a fag in the other, which do you put down in order to have a hand free with which to ease on the latex? This is the sort of situation that leaves me perplexed for hours, by which time the other party to the act has more often than not quit the unfruitful scene altogether.

These, and many even more idiotic quandaries, tormented me as I – I have to confess – ticked tick box after tick box. Have we become, I agonized, a kind of collectively immature mind? For really all of this measurement and analysis is like the actions of some pubescent, stretching his little penis along the edge of a six-inch perspex ruler, or scrunching up her nascent breasts as she squares up to the bathroom mirror.

Have we all mutated into ‘outsies’ rather than ‘insies’, so that we can no longer believe in the validity of our own sexuality, unless we can relate it to some group behavior? On this basis, everyone can ‘come out’ and regard themselves as a revolutionary innovator: ‘Oh yairs, my wife and I practice a missionary-position-style sex act, very perfunctorily, biannually.’ You do? Well, jolly good, jolly good, do assert yourself. Form a pressure group. We Need to Know.

I knew that things had begun to reach a pretty pass for me when someone asked me what my most exciting sexual fantasy was. I thought for a time and then replied: ‘having sex.’ They regarded me with unfeigned contempt.

From that day on my rampancy went into serious recession. And yet all around me the sexual imagery was writhing, groaning and then pullulating, swarming. Cone-shaped tit-embrasures poked my eyes out from the TV screen; and the most bizarre sexual chimeras were stalking the land: men dressed as women, women dressed as men; men transformed into women, women transformed into men. Even solicitors who had decided to dress as accountants.

The specter of aids just hasn’t inaugurated a new puritanism – yet. A lot of the surveys that have been undertaken have been intended to show up just this fact: that regardless of how strident and pervasive the health campaigns have been, a hell of a lot of people just can’t get it together to put on their rain macs in time.

But is this surprising? The whole art of seduction rests on the submerged tension lying round will he/she or won’t he/she. It’s almost impossible to intrude the issue of safe sex into this context without blowing the whole situation. Perhaps if condoms were marketed in a more Lawrentian fashion it would help: ‘The Primitive Blood-Spirit Condom Will Marry Your Shaft to Her Sex in a Gibing, Roiling, Tempest of Latex and Safely Contained Bodily Fluids ‘. Or maybe not.

Naturally, as I became steadily less adamant I investigated the possibilities of more unorthodox means of self-stimulation. I sent off for a dildo from a mail-order company. When it arrived it wasn’t at all satisfactory. The model was called ‘the John Major’. Lying in its box, the long, grey shape was almost entirely inert. And it remained that way even after I had switched it on.

I entertained the idea of many unnatural sexual practices: bondage, flagellation, necrophilia. I even countenanced that ultimate kinkiness: tenderly making love to someone you feel a great compatibility with. It was all to no avail, I remained like unto the proverbial Q-tip, although my mind was maelstrom. In desperation I sought out the services of Keith Waaaa!-Bodyform, a ‘sexual shaman’, after seeing a card advertising his services in the window of my local Spanish fly emporium.

‘Why do you call yourself ‘Keith Waaaa!-Bodyform?’ I asked him when we met in his rather dingy basement flat off Stroud green Road. ‘Well, basically,’ he held forth, ‘I view the contemporary sexual being as increasingly perverse, because it is decoupled from the necessary communal rituals. My moniker derives from that sanitary towel advert where all the lithe young women thrust their white, cotton-encased pudenda towards the camera. As if to say: ‘Look! No blood!’.’

Keith made me lie down. And while he performed certain arcane movements and chanted on about ‘releasing my inner coil’ and visualizing my ‘standing stone’, I fell asleep. I awoke an hour later with a severe headache and a bill for pounds 35.

As I slogged home, passing the people in the rain-swept streets, my mind remained lodged on my predicament. I thought of Nicholson Baker’s extravagant new novel Fermata, in which an undistinguished Boston temp called Arno discovers that he can freeze the entire universe and then move about in it at will. Arno uses this extraordinary power really to beat his meat. He strips insensible women in the street. He devises elaborate masturbatory playlets in which he writes porn stories, and smuggles them into the hands of women, who he then watches – you guessed it – masturbating.

Lucky Arno, I thought, if I put the universe on pause now, I’d probably use the extra time to catch up on the newspapers, or write to my 82-year-old godmother. Nowadays I no longer have any ethical beliefs about perverted sexual practices, merely a rather weary amazement that anybody has the energy for it.

But I can’t be alone. Despite the preening and posturing, the exaggeratedly metaphorical character of the new sexuality gives it the lie, and I can’t really believe that there’s a great deal of actual sex going on. The surveys bear me out on this. Fewer than a fifth of the people who took part in the Wellcome Survey thought that sex was the most important thing in a relationship. More than two-thirds thought that companionship and affection were more important, and a staggering seven-eighths said they would have a relationship with anyone who could ‘do VAT’.

It used to be said that sex sold newspapers. I wonder if it’s now become so used-up by the effort, that sex can’t manage to sell itself anymore? In part this has to be because in our quest for the kinky we have created some devastatingly un-erotic visions in recent months.

I used to prevent myself cumming during intercourse by acutely visualizing the floor of Euston Station buffet (in the period before its excellent and enterprising renovation I hasten to add). How much more effective a detumescent would be the picture afforded of David Mellor’s white thighs falling gracelessly from the rucked crotch of his Chelsea shorts, as he stalks across the bottle-strewn Wilton to where Antonia awaits? Or for that matter: the expression on Norman Lamont’s face when he was (in the realms of the imagination) being serviced by Julian Clary. If only I still had need of such superb bromides!

All of this concentration on the visual aspect of sex pushed my thoughts in a new direction: away from the practice and towards the obscure object of desire itself. Are we perhaps now all like the pervert who said to his sexologist: ‘I want people to tie me up and whip me, but when they do they’re never my type.’ Because if sex is big at the moment – at least on paper – then Romance (with a capital ‘R’) is bigger still.

On Valentine’s Day the newspaper is so full of sentimental darts fired from one heart to another, that there’s barely room for any sex at all. We seem to have elevated our search for the ideal partner, for all space and all time, in an inverse correlation to our ability to remain with the same person for longer than a few nights, a few rows, and the mandatory cooling off period.

However, I’m not lying down under this. I’m going figuratively to stand up for my new version of the sexual revolution. A partner such as myself can be a positive boon in these times. I’m safe (after all, if a penis is a weapon and every man a potential rapist, then I’ve got a veritable flower in my cache-sexe), I’m politically correct to the nth degree (who could refuse a ticket for the flaccid version of Romeo and Juliet), and I’m romantic as hell.

So spare a thought for me as you idly scan the message columns, and if you see one that says: ‘Pooh Bear is thinking of Piglet, and contemplating gentle nuzzling’, you’ll know I’m thinking about you. I hope you’ll be thinking about me too.